April 24, 2018 § 14 Comments
Music is great for writing. Pop those headphones in, start up your two-hour Epic Music track or your carefully curated, book-specific playlist, get in your headspace and go go go.
Music is not great for reading. When I edit a manuscript with song lyrics used as epigraphs, or quoted from one character to another, or someone singing along, I have standard cut-and-paste language:
Consider whether these lines are necessary: using song lyrics falls under a specific copyright area that is not subject to fair use, and obtaining permission is tedious and can be difficult and expensive.
The short answer to “What about using some song lyrics in my memoir?” is “You can’t.” To elaborate, songs written after 1923-ish (depending on when you read this blog post) are almost certainly under copyright. The singer or band associated with the song may or may not be the writer(s). Once you google to find the writing credits, you’ll need to track down the publisher through ASCAP or BMI. The publisher does not want to talk to you until you have a publication contract, or specific, written publication plans including where you’ll be selling the book, the cover price, and how many copies you’re printing. Then the publisher bills you.
It can get expensive, Blake Morrison tells the Guardian:
I still have the invoices. For one line of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: £500. For one line of Oasis’s “Wonderwall”: £535. For one line of “When I’m Sixty-four”: £735. For two lines of “I Shot the Sheriff” (words and music by Bob Marley, though in my head it was the Eric Clapton version): £1,000. Plus several more, of which only George Michael’s “Fastlove” came in under £200. Plus VAT. Total cost: £4,401.75.
But what about “fair use”?
Fair use is the legal principle allowing us to quote lines or paragraphs from books under copyright. Quotations are fair use if the number of words used is a very small proportion of the total words in the original work; if the quote is properly attributed; and if it’s essential to the point you’re making in your own work. Song lyrics have not yet been held to a “fair use” standard. Arguably, even a line of a song is a fairly large proportion compared to say, 200 words from a 90,000-word novel. But poetry can be fairly used and often is. What makes songs different?
Publishers with deep pockets, excellent legal teams, and a strong precedent of defending their copyrights.
Beyond legal battles, it’s worth it to consider what impact the quoted lyrics will really have in your book. Does your reader associate “Janie’s Got A Gun” with that beautiful night you sat in a convertible, watching the ocean roll in below the hills? Or does she remember her school’s anti-violence initiative that used the literal message of the song? Will readers from another generation even know the song you’re quoting? Will they think of it as “Mom’s music” instead of “pulse-pounding jam”? Writers can’t control how readers react, so we might as well use words we can craft ourselves.
In the Brevity Podcast Episode 8, Geeta Kothari and I discussed using quotes within essays and stories. In her experience as an editor for Kenyon Review, lyrics often pull the reader out of the story on the page and into their own associations with the song. JoBeth McDaniel, from the Rush editorial board, mentions in the same episode that even quoting other non-song writing raises legal issues that editors just don’t want to deal with.
Sure, it’s a great feeling when a single lyric conjures up a world of emotion in our heart. But it’s both uncertain and a bit lazy to expect that line to do the same for every reader. Instead, ask yourself what emotional purpose that song serves, and put that feeling in the setting, in the narrative, in the dialogue. Or obliquely quote in a way that makes knowledge of the original song unnecessary:
He banged his head to Sweet Child O’ Mine and I wished hard I could like Guns N Roses. (Titles are OK!)
On the radio, Springsteen was on fire, singing his creepy lyrics about Daddy not being home.
We rolled down the windows and cranked up the stereo–GooGooDolls, The Cure, KLM, all the music everyone was listening to, the bass throbbing in my chest and making me feel like I was part of everyone.
You’ve got something important to say. Don’t lean on a song to say it for you. Use your words. Use your images. Use your experiences. Trust in your power to create your own music in the reader’s head.
April 17, 2018 § 9 Comments
In fifth grade, I won a county-wide writing contest. I think that’s how they got my name. I had been “selected” for Best Young American Authors. Or Who’s Who in Young Authors. Or 100 Young Poets. Something like that. Of course I was thrilled–I’d gotten a real letter in the mail telling me my special status and requesting a copy of my story, my bio…and an order form for the number of copies of the anthology I would buy at $45 each.
My mother figured out it was a racket, but I was only a little disappointed. I’d already gotten a medal and a certificate from the school superintendent, what greater prize could there be?
The anthology racket is still alive, barely. Self-publishing has made massive inroads on paying for the excitement of your name in print. Independent authors invest more up front, but make some money back in sales. Independents control the quality of the work and physical presentation, rather than being positioned with everyone else who wrote a check, regardless of their ability to write a coherent sentence.
But as one head of the publishing-scam Hydra hisses beneath a stone, another pops up, ready to do even less for authors, for even more money.
Maybe you’ve gotten an email: there’s a contest your book is eligible for! If you win, your book will be presented to movie producers and in an ad on Goodreads! Press releases will feature you! You can put shiny gold stickers on your book cover! And it’s only $75! Per entry! In as many categories as you want!
Sadly, these “contests” are simply money-making machines for the organizers. “Winning” adds no credibility to your book, doesn’t help with sales, and seldom results in any publicity beyond free internet announcements. In fact, there are often so many subcategories that everyone who enters, wins. Their $75 didn’t buy fair consideration and worthy competition–it bought a sticker. (Additional stickers may be purchased at just $25/pack!)
There are plenty of legitimate contests and awards. But contests that mean something are usually contests you’ve already heard of, or affiliated with reputable magazines or organizations. Entities that do more than hold contests. You might be part of their mailing list, but they rarely solicit your entry personally. You may need your publisher to submit the book on your behalf, or to be nominated by librarians or booksellers. The judges are published writers or noted agents and editors. Past winners include writers you’ve heard of, or whose biographies mention MFAs and literary or mass media publications. There may be an entry fee, but it rarely tops $50 for a book or $25-30 for a story or essay. Books can only be entered in the year they are released, and only in one category. Legit contests offer specific, measurable prizes, like “$1000 and a guest lecture at X College,” rather than un-checkable weasel-language like “promoted to industry insiders.” You don’t have to purchase your own prize stickers if you win.
Over at Writer Beware, Victoria Strauss points out ways to spot a for-profit contest…
There are any number of moneymaking contests that focus on published books. Their M.O.: a huge entry fee, dozens or scores or even hundreds of entry categories, and the sale of additional merchandise to winners and honorees. Prizes are typically things that cost the sponsors little or nothing (website features, electronic press releases, vague promises of publicity campaigns). Judges are never named–and may not exist–and, although commercially published books are sometimes declared winners, the contests are marketed mainly to small press and self-published authors.
Profiteer awards and contests don’t typically command a lot of name recognition, but if you win or place, you’ll be able to tag your book as an “award-winning book” and yourself as an “award-winning author.” How much readers care about such designations, though, is an open question. With all the fake review scandals, as well as readers’ increasing disillusion with authorial self-promotion, I think book buyers have become more cynical in general about what authors say about themselves.
Pay-to-play contests are aimed squarely at authors eager for recognition, and for that extra something to help their book stand out. Cynical, shady organizations recognize and exploit that hunger.
Genuine book awards do launch careers. They’re also highly competitive, and a lot less “rah-rah” about the prizes, because their name alone is the prize (i.e. Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel). One day, you’ll be in the running. For now, skip the contest entry and use that time to write another essay, something that will draw real attention to your book. Something beautiful. Something more powerful than a $75 sticker.
Wondering if a contest is legit? The Alliance of Independent Authors has a handy chart.
Writer Beware is a valuable resource for all writers. Their blog and searchable archives explain scams and name and shame predator agents and unscrupulous publishers.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Creating Memoir From Memory on June 10, as part of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey.
April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
This episode, Brevity takes a detour into fiction, speaking with debut author Rhiannon Navin about making fiction from fact and how she turned her real-life emotional experience into a novel. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled creative nonfiction, with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.
Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below.
Next episode, it’s time for our listeners’ very own One-Minute Memoirs! Audio Editor Kathryn Rose and I will discuss what made the winning submissions stand out, and how to make your own story pack maximum punch in minimum space. And you’ll hear 15 fantastic, very short memoirs.
Show Notes: Episode #9 People and Books
Find out more about:
Useful Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases to Describe Ander Monson:
- bad boy
- future addict
- serious and accomplished
- brainy but beautiful
- more than likely delusional
- bright but misguided
- hurt, badly, baldly
- trying real hard to be good
March 29, 2018 § 6 Comments
Tuesday, I wrote about planning an upcoming retreat. After deciding to focus on full-manuscript revisions, making a website and budgeting, I needed to plan the retreat itself. How would I schedule the time? What would the writers expect? I turned to some experts for advice.
What surprised you when you first started planning/leading/speaking at retreats?
Ryder Ziebarth, founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series: The special requests were a bit of a revelation—can you offer more fruit next time? It’s too cold in here; it’s too hot in here; can you possibly rent more comfortable chairs next time? I forgot my coat (notebook, lipstick, power-cord) can you mail it to me? All quite reasonable requests, but I had to learn that I am now not just a writer, but a writer in the hospitality business.
Lisa Romeo, retreat leader and author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss: Regardless of whether an event is labeled as “generative” or not, if there’s scheduled quiet writing time or not, if there’s an option for sharing work or not, if it’s called a workshop or retreat or seminar or intensive—it’s not unusual for those registering to expect some or all of that, or none of that! So it’s enormously important for organizers to publish a very clear description, and follow up with a fuller description and instructions for registrants, so when folks arrive they’re prepared and know what to expect.
Joanne Lozar Glenn, leader of Write Time Write Place Write Now local and destination retreats: The panic that hit me a few days before I had to get on the road for the retreat. As an educator I was comfortable leading writing activities, I knew most of the people who’d be attending, and yet, in those last few days before my first retreat, I was absolutely terrified.
What’s important to consider in the retreat schedule and your own leadership?
Hananah Zaheer, partner in Mind The Gap travelling retreat collective: I have attended retreats that are fairly isolated from the world (VCCA and Rivendell) and were great for working on projects I had started. While the completely open-schedule retreat means one can work any time one chooses, I found that some structure to the day was helpful to me. When my partner and I planned the first collective trip to London, we created a loose schedule with writing time, optional visits to museums and plays, and two readings to be able to share whatever we were creating. This provides a nice, inspirational break to get back to writing.
Ryder: Gauging attention spans. You have to interpret body language to know when your participants need a break. Plan at least one five-minute break for a stretch and some water, etc. at the end of every hour.
Hananah: I think it’s a nice bonus to have a retreat where food is included…such an unexpected little freedom.
Joanne: Participants are excited about having dedicated time to write. They’re also scared. You’re asking them to risk. In a sense you’re asking them to show up naked on the page. So I recommend figuring out a signature way of making them feel welcome and safe.
I find a card with an image/message that resonates with the activities, whether that’s to have a sense of “play” about the writing, or to stand strong in your truth and write with power, for example. One of my last tasks before leaving for a retreat I’m leading is to write a welcoming letter that builds on that theme, tuck it inside the card, and have one waiting for each writer when they check in.
Lisa: Stay on track and deliver what you promised; yet be alert to topics attendees introduce. They may provide great teaching moments and if they seem to capture the writers’ attention or imagination, a spontaneous digression can be an exciting addition to the agenda.
Ryder: It was important to me the Cedar Ridge Writers participants were heard, that everyone’s work was heard if they wanted to share it—even if it cuts into the next exercise.
Joanne: Find a way to match the risk your participants are taking. I used to think my job was to “hold the space,” and that I couldn’t both hold the space and write. But gifted workshop leader Pat Schneider (who founded Amherst Writers and Artists) set me straight. “You won’t write your best work when you’re also responsible for leading a retreat,” she said, “but it’s important to show you’re willing to take the same risk you’re asking your workshop participants to take.” She was right. So I started writing (and sharing what I wrote) during our sessions.
Maybe a year or so later, a retreat participant and I were talking about that idea of risk-taking when sharing work. She told me, “When you didn’t write and share with us, I always wondered whether it was because you didn’t trust us.” That shocked me. No matter your intention or reason for doing one thing or another, it’s going to come across differently to everyone who’s there. The only thing you can do is be as clear as you can when communicating, and then let go of the rest because it’s out of your control. That’s hard, and something I have to really work at.
What did you expect to matter that wasn’t a big deal after all?
Lisa: That everyone in the room be at the same skill level. I’ve actually found it’s much more interesting for everyone when you have a mix of experience represented.
Ryder: I’d never taught before presenting my first workshop. Once I got over my nervousness, I found I was actually comfortable in the role, and I’m pretty sure no-one guessed I was scared to death.
Joanne: Being 100% prepared and scripted. Being prepared is important, of course—the less you have to worry about the more you can be available and present. But I find the Buddhist concept of ‘not too tight, not too loose’ helpful to remember. And getting lots of sleep. If you’re 80-90% prepared and well-rested (and fed), it’s a lot easier to respond in a creative, authentic way to what is happening, and to make the most of a teachable moment.
What are you planning next?
Hananah: I started finding local groups to connect with, to participate in readings and hear what the local writing scene is like. When I plan the Mind the Gap retreats, my biggest concern is finding a location where participants can benefit not just from the travel but also from the local literary scene, museums, bookstores, etc. The next Mind the Gap retreat is coming up in October.
Lisa: My first book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss will be published by University of Nevada Press on May 1, 2018. I’ll be speaking about the writing process at the Cedar Ridge workshop June 10th, and other events listed on my website.
Joanne: Upcoming “Get Away and Get Writing” retreats will be in the USA and abroad.
Ryder: I decided to “GO BIG” and move the fourth Cedar Ridge workshop to our local public library, which holds four times the amount of people I can host at my house. Creating Memoir From Memory will be June 10th in Bedminster, New Jersey.
And from Allison: Armed with the information these retreat leaders generously shared, I feel a lot better about my own Rebirth Your Book manuscript-work week in India in June. I’ll also be leading Creating Memoir From Memory at Cedar Ridge.
Do you lead a retreat? Do you want to? Please tell us about your retreat—or ask a question for your own planning—in the comments!
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
March 27, 2018 § 10 Comments
From a one-day workshop in your hometown to a three-week residency in a distant artists’ colony, there’s magic in sharing time and space with other writers. But maybe you’re tired of waiting for the right time, location and price. What about organizing your own retreat? How hard can it be to pick a place, decide whether someone’s teaching or you’re just sharing workspace, round up a few friends and go?
That said, you might want to do it anyway.
Back in 2015, I attended Joanne Lozar Glenn’s session on retreat-planning at Hippocamp. I studied her handouts, thinking this could be fun? Maybe?
I looked around. Writer friend Hananah Zaheer holds a biannual retreat with a collective of writing pals, taking turns teaching craft elements, meeting in different cool cities. Ryder S. Ziebarth hosts one-day workshops on her farm in rural New Jersey, inviting guest speakers like memoirist Lisa Romeo. Joanne herself leads single-day and multi-day workshops year-round. I googled ‘writing retreats.’ Writing for Caregivers. For Ministers. Jumpstart Your Memoir/Novel/Nonfiction Proposal. Writing in Ireland, in Mexico, in Hamlet’s castle. A smörgåsbord of residencies and workshops. I thought, I’ll just sit with this idea for a while.
Flash-forward to December 2017. I knew I wanted a retreat in India, in June. I’d led plenty of small-group immersion tours. I got good reviews when I taught. But I had three editing-client manuscripts due in January, my ideas hadn’t solidified…maybe it just wasn’t going to happen.
Then my husband made me a website. Surprise!
Suddenly I had to write copy. Pick the right boutique hotel. Choose a focus for the week. Make decisions. I checked out an expensive learn-to-plan-a-retreat course online. I could take the class or keep paying rent. But their free intro videos made two major points:
- A “destination” retreat isn’t just a workshop in a pretty place. The location should complement and inspire the work.
- Narrow your audience. Instead of “anyone with money and pages who has a week off and wants to go to that place,” specifically define an immediate, pressing problem and how you can help them solve it. Market your retreat to people who have that problem badly enough to make time, find the cash, and get there. Be ready to deliver 100%—after their time with you, the problem should be solved.
I’d already picked India so I had to reverse-engineer the connection between work and place. Preferably without appropriating Indian religious beliefs or spiritual practices outside my culture. Colonial Fort Kochi had been Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British, and ruled by other Indian kingdoms before independence, so what about tapping into rebirth/regeneration from a historical perspective?
What writer-problem could I solve? What’s been missing from previous otherwise-terrific workshops I’ve gone to? Well, I often don’t make much progress on my own work. It takes hours to thoughtfully critique 25 pages each for as many as 10 classmates, then discuss them in class, and maybe half the notes I get back are useful. I want the teacher’s attention and I want to work on my own pages. I want a goddamn Oompa-Loompa, and I want it now. There had to be other writers who felt like this…I hoped.
My husband—a numbers guy—suggested a “break-even” spreadsheet: list every expense, including planning and teaching hours. Hotel rooms. Workspace. Meals. Local guides—don’t forget the tips! I researched other retreats’ offerings; the list got longer. Insurance. Welcome baskets. A reading night—wine? How much wine? How many hours to read everyone’s full manuscript in advance? Add profit on top, divide by number of participants, and that’s what tuition costs. I figured a low profit for the first year—a small bonus on top of hours worked. Get it off the ground, make money later if it’s a success.
Now I had numbers and a website. I knew the retreat would focus on major revisions of existing manuscripts (rebirth!), working only on one’s own pages, and ideally, each participant finishing their current draft. But what if I totally sucked at this and everyone had a terrible time and hated me forever?
I turned to some experts for advice.
February 22, 2018 § 25 Comments
A few years ago I studied at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.
They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?
I said, “But there’s this countdown…”
“Countdown to what?”
And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.
I’d spent seven years with this character and story in my head. For me, the gun was just there. Why wouldn’t it be? But it wasn’t on the page.
Editing memoir, I often see the same quirk of a major missing piece.
Dad’s an alcoholic? That’s why he acted like that? It’s not in here for the reader. Adult-writer-you might want to make that clear even if child-narrator-you is oblivious.
There’s a ton of money supporting this giant home renovation in another country. The reader wants to know at least briefly how you got it.
Wait, there was an implied sex scene after the picnic at the end of that chapter? Please write enough of it that we know it happened. Even if you just take off her shirt or stroke her hair.
It’s hard to remember all the information readers need to make sense of our story–not because there’s too much to tell, but because we already have a full background briefing. We’re sick to death of the details. We’re afraid to be too obvious, to overwrite, make our work too simple or somehow un-literary by speaking plainly.
I’ve said before, all books are mysteries. Just as if we read a whodunit where the murderer didn’t show up at all until the page before he’s caught, the reader feels ripped off if they don’t have the breadcrumbs to follow your trail. Think about re-reading a classic sleuth novel, and the pleasure of noticing all the clues you missed the first time around, how each puzzle piece falls into place, the last detail snapping into focus right at the villain’s unmasking.
Writing memoir also calls for careful clues. Show the life experience on the way to discovery of illness that shows you can fight (or are fighting for the first time), and the team of doctors, family and friends fighting with you. The hints of family history overheard as children, that now you know were secrets covered up.
It’s counter-intuitive, but don’t surprise the reader. When we reveal the hidden reasons behind our torment, or show our triumph, or beat the tumor, we want the reader instead to be shocked. Fascinated that it turned out this way, but realizing that of course that’s how the story had to end. We want our books to be heavily laden vehicles with bad brakes, rolling down hills toward brick walls. We’re shocked at the impact–but having watched the dump truck full of chickens gather speed, we’re not surprised. If the brakes suddenly worked again, stopping the truck abruptly inches from the wall, it’s still a powerful shock (plus relief!) but again, it’s not a surprise. One way or another, everything pointed to an explosion of feathers and squawks.
Take a look at your essay, or your manuscript. What’s the stunning conclusion, the revelation, the connection the reader makes at the last minute? Go back and find the clues. What logically leads to this conclusion, step by step? Is it subtle enough to still need to finish the story to find out what happens, but clear enough that a reader who doesn’t know the plot already will say, “Ohhhhhhh. Yeah. That had to happen–it’s the only way.”
The illusion in our heads is of a fully realized world, provided with every necessary action and relationship to contextualize our story. The reader only gets what’s on the page. Give them enough cards and top hats to be in on the illusion, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. No chickens were harmed in the writing of this post.
February 15, 2018 § 14 Comments
Some time ago, I wrote at The Review Review:
…when a magazine elides their lack of cash compensation or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern, or a criterion for submission. It becomes another subtle signpost to writers: Your work shouldn’t be for money. At its worst, not actively sharing the information says, you shouldn’t care, writer. You shouldn’t ask. As if it’s money-grubbing or disgraceful or besmirching the purity of the art.
It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a “literary” writer—to want to be paid.
Today, jet-lagged and still trying to track down payment info, I am moved to poetry. With apologies to Tennyson and Elizabeth Bishop–
I sit and surf the internet
My list of brand-new journals set
There’s just one thing they oft forget
To tell me if they pay.
Their mission statement’s pure and strong
They’ve published memoir, poem and song
Their limit’s twenty pages long
Now tell me, do they pay?
I read through issues old and new
Decide that I admire you
One detail more I need to view–
To find out if you pay.
We’re literary citizens
Buying chapbooks by the tens
Sharing work from all our friends
No matter if we’re paid.
We’re told to have a long-term plan
Submit near-daily if we can
But our hearts turn pale and wan
From never getting paid.
I’m happy to publish for free
Or for an honorary fee
To choose a venue for prestige
And sometimes I want pay.
It’s not a crime to build on love
To work together for the cause
It’s just that I would like to choose
To sell my words for pay.
It’s not enough to think it’s clear no
stated fee means no pay here. Oh
don’t default to author=zero,
Own it! “We don’t pay.”
There’s lots of ways to sweetly say:
We pay in copies!
Just the fame–
We’ll make your name!
We’re all hard-working
We’re not sad or even mad
If your rule is iron-clad
For newer rags we’ll join the bet
But please be clear, “no budget yet”
For big-deal pages we’re excited
Just the print makes us delighted
But let us please decide ourselves
Whether to donate or sell
And tell us journals, far and near
(we promise we’ll still hold you dear)
Just make the information clear
Please tell us if you pay.
Allison K Williams has been Brevity‘s Social Media editor since 2015. She promises to wait another three years before again committing poetry.
February 13, 2018 § 15 Comments
Interviewing an author for the Brevity Podcast, I ask how his book is coming along. He says it’s terrible. He has no idea how he’ll make his way through, finish a draft so he can fix it in revisions. I trust and respect this writer, but part of me still thinks, yeah, right. I know him to be an amazing writer, I love his work. I can’t imagine him writing the same pages of unfocused crap I do.
An early-career writer friend says, “Every time I read an interview with a famous author, they all say they write shitty first drafts. But they never show them to anyone, so it just sounds like something they say to make crappy writers feel better about themselves. Like telling us to believe in Santa Claus.”
The idea of the shitty first draft has been around for a long time. Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Bernard Malamud: “The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.” Many of us know the concept from Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird:
Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.
But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.
But it’s still hard to believe.
As a circus performer, I spent hours in the gym falling into mats over and over again, watching people I loved and respected, people I knew to be far more skilled than me, also fall into mats over and over again in the same room. In a museum, I can see Picasso’s sketches and mistakes hung next to his masterworks. But once a writer’s no longer in school, we rarely see the process of our peers. (If you’re still in school, start planning who you’re going to stay in touch with to share work.) I’m lucky to have a few writing buddies I can share shapeless early drafts with, people I know will be sensitive to whether I need encouragement or critique, people whose early and middle and final drafts I see, too, so it feels like an exchange instead of judgement.
Shitty first drafts aren’t the only way to write. Some writers prefer revising as they go. I’m sure some writers think through their story so thoroughly in their heads, or outline so precisely, that once they sit down, the right words come out in more or less the right order. But for many of us, the first draft is basically telling the story to ourselves. Thinking on the page–finding the heart of the story way down on page five, a single beautiful sentence in the margin, or the perfect opening in the final paragraph.
As a teacher, it’s embarrassing to share a terrible, misguided, overwritten, overwrought first draft with our students. As a writer, no-one wants to let our weak sentences out into the world before we’ve muscled them up and trimmed them down. But there’s value in a a sloppy, disorganized, poorly written first draft. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary first step. It’s barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oil on canvas. It’s writing a 1500-word narrative essay/journal entry that becomes a 700-word hermit-crab essay. Taking the time to assemble the materials of events, characters, plot and themes, letting them be jumbled until they tell us what they want to say, trusting that from the pile of pieces we can find a story, we can pull a shining thread.
Yes, Virginia, wherever there are writers, there are shitty first drafts. And just as presents and nibbled cookies prove Santa showed up in the night, the very existence of finished, glorious work means someone, somewhere, wrote a terrible first draft.
February 8, 2018 § 12 Comments
Perhaps the most famous piece of writing advice ever: “Write what you know.” A maxim right up there with “don’t quit your day job” and “vampires are done.”
But should you?
One of my favorite writers is Dick Francis (the when-he-was-alive version, not the now-he’s-a-brand version). Francis wrote horse-racing mysteries. Early in his career, they were all about horse-racing, and the skulduggery around the track: doping, blackmail, sabotage, family conflict. All the things that happen when a bunch of wealthy people get together for a competitive hobby. Francis knew that world. He’d been a jockey for many years, including riding for Queen Elizabeth II. But as his books became more popular, they also became more diverse. He still set every one in the world of racing in some way, but he added a layer. Racecourse catering (poison!), architecture and renovation (explosions!), glass-blowing (domestic abuse!). Reading his work was enjoyable not just to solve the mystery, but to learn about another new world.
As nonfiction writers, we usually write what we know. But writing what we want to know–what takes time and research to figure out–can be even more powerful. If we’re writing narrative nonfiction or longform journalism, writing what we want to know is kind of the point. But how can we apply this to memoir and personal essay?
By assuming we are part of a larger story, and we’re only able to see our part.
Imagine the you-protagonist is a character in a play. That character only knows what happens in their scenes. There’s a whole world of Hamlet happening behind Ophelia’s back–all she knows is that her boyfriend is acting really oddly this week.
For memoir and essay, this research involves taking our family, friends and antagonists seriously. Assuming there’s method behind their madness. Speculating–or asking–what’s happening when we’re offstage. Make some phone calls. Get snoopy.
Over at Lithub, Emily Temple has compiled quotes from many authors addressing “write what you know.” From Bret Anthony Johnston:
In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.
That’s why, as memoirists, we must seek out what we don’t know. We must give the reader a picture as complete as we can make, tell them something that matters to more than just ourselves.
Check out Should You Write What You Know? at Lithub.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
February 5, 2018 § 13 Comments
Oh the glamorous literary life—last week Dubai, yesterday New York, today Shreveport! I’m writing this in the back of a Lyft on the way to the airport, after a week of parties and book-signings, retweeting Shonda Rhimes’ compliments and brainstorming article ideas for major national publications, la la la.
Except it’s not for me. Sure, I live in Dubai (husband already worked there when I met him), but the last five days in New York have been focused on a client. A lovely author whose book comes out this week and who yes, was listed in Shondaland. I’m the writing coach. My work is literary-adjacent: support my client at a bookstore event, spelling names correctly on post-its for the signing table. Introduce her at the release party. Talk through ideas for articles. Work next to her at the kitchen table, updating my website while she answers questions for a blog about writers and their dogs.
There’s a persistent myth that “real writers” just write. Over at Lithub, Rosalie Knecht tells us how that got started:
It’s easy to forget that Hemingway and the rest went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like. This was not only a setting: it was a particular economy. Not only was rent cheap, but print was still the king of mass media. It was possible, for a brief moment in time, to make a living selling pieces to magazines. As a result, the image of the writing life created in this period includes no non-writing day jobs whatsoever.
When people ask me what I do, I say “I’m a writer. And I edit other people’s work.” Yes, I get paid to write, already a huge step, but I wrote a lot for free before I started getting paid, and I still write for free for venues I’m invested in as a literary citizen (hello, Brevity readers!). Even my client with the brand-new book is still writing for free—those blog interviews don’t write themselves, and even authors whose publishers pay for the book tour must write for publicity. Signing books is not “writing” time. Midlist authors—that group a publisher needs for bread and butter, but who don’t get press releases sent to Shondaland—mostly have day jobs, or spouses with day jobs. Small-press authors are often teaching full-time.
Most of my “writing” days look like this:
- 6AM-7AM: Squint at Twitter in bed
- 7AM-9AM: Morning routine, commute
- 9AM-10:30AM: Coffee, breakfast, social media, that thing where I cross a bunch of easy stuff off my list instead of tackling the most important thing first
- 10:30AM-12PM: Write novel (OK, sometimes it’s only an hour)
- 12PM-4PM: Editing other people’s work, website updates, planning the India retreat for writers mid-book, the Brevity blog and podcast, punctuated by email and social media
- 4PM-6:30PM: Commute, cook dinner
- 6:30PM-10PM: Spend time with husband, email, social media, editing
Notice there’s 90 minutes of actual, writing-the-project-I-love time. Max. On a good day. And on a good day, that’s plenty. I’m writing hard, emotionally involving stuff right now, and there’s only so much time I can spend crying and snotting.
What works for me, what feels “real,” is making it to the chair five days out of seven. Writing on a me-project most of those days. That may not be what works for you—maybe you get 10 minutes a day, or chunks of weekend, or early mornings, or three days a month, or summer vacation. Your schedule reflects your life in an economy where rent is a much larger percentage of income than it was in 1948, and where most health insurance is tied to working full time. Many of us have kids, spouses, even friends we like to spend time with. On the up side, we’re much less likely to drink or cough ourselves to death, or be brutally satirized by Truman Capote.
When I taught theatre, I told a lot of worried parents, “Everyone thinks ‘Hollywood star!’ is every actor’s goal. But most actors I know make a living in regional theatre and summer Shakespeare festivals, teaching, recording audio books and guesting on Law&Order. Fame does not equal success. Success does not equal fame. Your kid can be happy and make a living doing something they love and are good at.”
Famous writers are doing more than writing what they love. Successful writers may never be household names. Art is not somehow purer if we do nothing else. Do what you love and are good at. Do it often enough to get better. Do it when and where you can. That’s real. That’s enough.
Rosalie Knecht’s article at Lithub is well worth a full read.