Finish Your Book

August 20, 2019 § 10 Comments

I’ve found ‘one weird trick’ that gets me to the end of major projects:

Doing one thing.

It seems so simple, and yet this morning I:
Checked email
Made breakfast
Gave feedback on pages
Tore apart my closet looking for a thing I tucked away while I was on vacation, and had hidden so well I couldn’t find it (my closet is now extremely tidy and partially Konmari-ed)
Dealt with the air conditioner repair men
Washed dishes

You get it. Chances are, you do it too. And it doesn’t make us bad people, or even bad writers. We’re human. We got stuff to do.

But three months ago I really needed to finish a website. I made it my “weekend” project, and worked only on website copy and pictures and html code until I was done. No editing, no other writing, no reading, no errands. It took four days. But it’s done.

Two months ago I needed to finish a book proposal. Weekend project. Blinders on. Six days. But it’s done.

I don’t have kids and I set my own work hours and my spouse is beyond supportive. But it’s still hard to pick one thing, figure out how to tackle it, and do it until it’s done. It’s hard to stay focused when totally legit things want our attention (I did shower and cook dinners).

That’s why so many writers love retreats. A blissful week away in which someone else cooks and cleans, and no-one can “Hey Mom!” or “Ummm…Dad?” or “I need that presentation” you. But even on retreats it’s hard to get started. And if you’ve only got a week, you need a plan. A big-picture view of what needs doing and how.

At home, you can enlist a writer friend. Split an Airbnb for a week, read each other’s manuscript before you go and give specific, prescriptive feedback about what to work on in what order. Not “your book should be like this” but, after hearing your goals, “Restructure the plot, then fix the ending, then rewrite chapters 8-10.” Check in with each other daily for accountability.

But if you have time and funds, we’d like to suggest a retreat…that comes with a manuscript read. (This is where the ad part starts!) Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams would like to invite you to Costa Rica.

Next May, we’ll be hosting 10 dedicated writers in a luxury eco-lodge overlooking the Pacific. Organic food that you don’t cook. Beautiful grounds you don’t mow. Probably sloths. Definitely monkeys. But most importantly, we read your entire manuscript before you arrive, and with you, make a work plan to finish a draft, a proposal, or your book, before you leave. Don’t have a book yet? Write the first draft with us, and we’ll read it when you go home. Either way, it’s a chance to focus deeply on the work that’s most important to you.

If a travel retreat isn’t in your bag, grab a friend and start picking dates for your own week of fabulous productivity. But if you think finishing your book in tropical paradise might be for you, we’d love to spend that time together.

More information about Rebirth Your Book retreats. (If you’re already close to done, there’s room for two more in Italy in October!)

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Please say hello if you’re at Hippocamp!

Query 101 (or many more)

August 6, 2019 § 13 Comments

An agent realizing she knows EXACTLY which editor will want your book

In publishing, August is vacation month. Not that agents and editors are literally out-of-office all month (who can afford the Hamptons anymore?), but the pace slows. Agents catch up on reading requested manuscripts, editors gear up for Christmas releases. Writers come home from workshops and retreats, or send the kids to camp, and dive into another draft.

September is query season. If you’re on your hopefully-final draft, get ready. I’ve done the query process three times—twice successfully—and here’s 7 ways to kickstart your querying.

1) Start an agent spreadsheet, no matter how far you are from “done.” Note what each agent represents, whether they’re open for submissions, tidbits from their bio/social media/interviews, what query material they want to receive and how, and their response timeline. This takes 15-30 minutes per agent. Start adding 3-5 agents a week to your list now and you won’t have hours of agent research all at once later. Add agents who aren’t right for you, either color-coded or on another page, so you don’t look them up twice by accident. Plus, you’ll have names to share when your friend writing a different genre starts her query process. (Remember to double-check agent details immediately before actually querying.)

2) Subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (for a month, if cash is an issue). Look up what agents have recently sold, and whether or not those books are in your genre. Not all agents looking for X are actually selling X. Focus your time on the agents selling books like yours.

3) Read Query Shark. This blog, run by literary agent Janet Reid, critiques novel queries. Authors often revise their query several times, evolving from ‘meh’ to ‘send your book!’ You’re not writing a novel? Read it anyway. Seeing the mistakes writers make in summarizing their stories and trying to pique an agent’s interest is valuable for memoirists and narrative nonfiction writers, too. You’ll also absorb the format and flow of a typical query.

4) If you are writing memoir or nonfiction, write a proposal. Some memoirs sell on proposal and sample chapters. Some nonfiction sells on platform alone. You may despise “platform” as a fake thing that isn’t “real writing” or “real connection.” Assembling a proposal isn’t a joyful literary romp, but it is identifying your readership and how, specifically, your book will reach those people. Want to publish traditionally? The publisher wants to know who’s going to buy your book. Want to self-publish? You want to know who’s going to buy your book. You have a soul above social media and filthy lucre? Your readers want to be able to find your powerful, personal, necessary story that will change their lives.

5) Write a synopsis. Many agents want one. A book proposal will need an outline, synopsis and/or chapter summaries. Summarizing your story in 1-3 pages (750 words or less) is a great way to see if your plot—or the part of your life you’ve focused on—is compelling. If it feels unexciting in the synopsis, write a better synopsis…or a better book.

6) Agents all have personal submissions procedures. Attach the first 25 pages. Paste the first 10 pages into the body of the email. Send the first three chapters in 12-point serif font. Attach a synopsis, paste your bio into the body of the email followed by the first 5 pages and stand on your head while pressing Send. You’ll save time later if you prep the most-requested materials in advance. Make a folder on your desktop and save the first 5, 10, 25 and 50 pages as docs. Paste them into a email and reformat because the email will kill your formatting. Save the emails in your draft folder. Now you can easily copy-paste from email to email or attach the requested pages.

7) Plan to query in stages. You get one chance per agent, per book. Blasting 100 queries without testing the waters spends your chances poorly.

– First, query 5-10 agents who aren’t your first choice. Getting requests? Keep querying. No requests for pages or fulls? Sorry, your query sucks. Revise. Get an outside opinion if you can afford it. Listen to podcasts that analyze queries. Read #10queries / #tenqueries Twitter threads.

 – Requested pages rejected? Something is wrong with your voice, style, pace, or where the story starts. Same deal: pause your querying & find the problem. If you want the help of a professional editor or query consultant, it’s much less expensive to pay for a look at your first 10-25 pages and synopsis. Apply those notes to whole manuscript.

 – Getting requests for full manuscripts? Start querying your A-list.

 – More than 3 requested full manuscripts rejected with no feedback beyond “I can’t sell this”? Something is wrong with your storytelling/structure. Pause your querying and undertake whatever editing plan works for you, whether that’s an online course, a book, a workshop or a pro editor. (If you’re getting useful feedback that you agree with, revise accordingly. If you’re getting encouraging “great but not for me” feedback, keep querying until you have 10 rejected fulls, then edit.)

Finally, query with energy but without hope. Treat it like a trip to the mall. You’d like to find a great new jacket, but you’re not devastated if your favorite store doesn’t have one. The “dream” agent is the one who loves your book and thinks she can sell it. Rejections are agents self-selecting out of the pool of “people who can sell your book.” Will rejections hurt your feelings? Absolutely. But you’re not going to get an agent (or get published) without them. Planning in advance and setting up systems for information tracking and submissions helps you approach querying as a shopper. You need a jacket; they need your business. It’s a mutual relationship built on trust and the desire to sell a beautiful thing to the people who need it most. Set yourself up for success, even before you start.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her on Instagram @guerillamemoir and in person at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference August 22-25. Exciting retreat news coming soon…(hint: beautiful beaches, up-close wildlife, and leaders whose names rhyme with Minty and Pallison)

 

www.you.com: The Author Website

July 2, 2019 § 10 Comments

If you’re writing for publication, you need a website.

Not an expensive site with social media feeds, embedded video and a blog with weekly updates. Just an internet calling card that serves as a hub for your online presence. Ideally, the first thing that pops up when someone googles your name, or if your name is common, “Your Name+Author” or “Your Name+Writer.” A website makes you look more professional than social media alone, and it’s part of the framework of your writing career.

Pick a domain name. If you can get your own name, or your own name with a middle initial, or yourownnamewriter or yourownnamebooks, get one of those. Don’t name your site the title of your book, because the title may change before publication, and you will (hopefully!) write more books. If you also register the title of your book, super, but until your book is published, point that domain name to your main website.

Make the domain name simple enough to say out loud and have people remember it. Make it short, so it fits easily on a business card. If you’ve got social media handles, try to get that domain name: @SoniaRashidWrites = SoniaRashidWrites.com

I’ve found Name.com to be cheap and reliable; you don’t need to already have a website to register your domain name. Here are the basic steps.

Use a responsive template. “Responsive” means the website automatically changes size and shape when someone reads it on their phone. Most modern website templates are responsive, but check for that word.

Just the facts. If you’re making your first author website (or redoing an unfortunate previous site), include:

  • Your name and a tagline or very short bio that tells what you write about, visible on the first page without clicking or scrolling.

Martha Carroll

Freelance Travel and Memoir

Allegra Martinez

Adventurous cookery from a food scientist-turned-travelista

  • A photograph of you, or that is evocative of your writing topics. Read our previous blog post for secrets to a good headshot, and search “free stock photos” for a professional photo that shows something about your work. Or heck, pay for a stock photo—they aren’t expensive for non-commercial use (you aren’t selling copies), and that reduces your chances of picking a photo six other writers are using on their own websites.
  • Contact information. Either an email contact form or a link to email you, plus icons that link to your social media.

If that’s what you can do for now, great! Your online calling card is good to go. If you have more time and energy, add:

  • A full bio that tells your background and education, how you came to writing, where your work has been published, and what you’re working on right now. If you’re writing fiction, you may want to include a charming personal detail like your pets or relationship. If you’re writing memoir and worried about privacy, you don’t have to put personal info down, but one detail like “He enjoys goat yoga,” can help the reader get to know you.
  • Links to anything you’ve previously published that you’re proud of.
  • A blog where you update readers on your publications and/or life relative to writing, about once a month. You’re unlikely to gain many readers through the website, but that’s not what this blog is for. This blog is to show agents you are engaging with the world as a writer. If you want people to read the blog, send out posts as an email newsletter. Turn off commenting if that’s an option, because “0 comments” looks sad.

That’s enough. Really! Until you’re publishing regularly, that’s truly all your website needs.

How much does a website cost? Anything from $50 for hosting, domain name and a stock photo on an existing platform, to $3000 or more for a fancy site with dedicated hosting. Good basic websites can be had for $500-1500; spending more can help you get exactly what you want without having to learn very much.

If you do want to throw money at the project, make sure you look at other writers’ websites and check out who designed them. Ask for references, and ask those references how fast the site was done and if they got what they really wanted. Google the writer and check that their site is on the first page of results; if not, the site designer hasn’t done great SEO (search-engine optimization—basically little coded flags the website waves to say “Here I am! Show me to people!”)

For doing it yourself, WordPress, Wix and Squarespace are the main build-your-own-website platforms. (Links are to basic tutorials for each platform. And if you love one of those, please tell us why in the comments!) If you feel more adventurous and are willing to spend 20-30 hours and learn a little html code, try a Bootstrap template.

A writer website doesn’t need to be constantly updated. When you publish something new, link it. When you write a blog post, post it. If you blog somewhere else, post the first paragraph with a link to the other blog. Add the website link to your email signature, so friends can click over and see what you’re up to. And when you’re ready to query? Double-check for typos one more time, and feel good about being a professional.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster, PA, August 21-23, 2019.

Getting Personal

June 20, 2019 § 13 Comments

The biggest misconception about social media for writers is that it’s free.

Sure, we don’t pay to subscribe to Twitter, there’s no cost-per-click to view our friends’ news on Facebook. But there’s still a price, and what we’re paying is time and privacy.

What do we get in return? Genuine connection. Relationships with people we’ve met briefly but who share our interests. Family news that needn’t be shared one paper letter at a time. And as writers, we build our readership and promote our work.

That’s not free.

I’ve seen several writers wondering if they should start a Facebook author page, because their book is coming out next week. How can they keep their profile private and get everyone to like their author page instead?

Let’s break that down: I’m not going to share my real self with you, but I’d like you to view and share my advertising as often as possible.

Because that’s what an author page is. A commercial. Yes, we share book news and promote our friends and link free articles. But fundamentally, an author page’s purpose is to entice people to enjoy our words enough to shell out $12.99 to read more.

That’s not free either.

Even when someone likes and follows your page, Facebook doesn’t automatically deliver your news. Only 10-15% of your followers will see each post. You’ve heard of “the algorithm”? Fancy math weighing a person’s popularity and their topic’s interest to the general public. Social media companies’ number-one priority is keeping people online. If you’re interesting and fun and have lots of followers, Twitter ranks your tweets more highly. Instagram puts you on the Explore page. Facebook drops your announcements into your friends’ newsfeeds. You’re paying for eyeballs by donating your popularity. Algorithms make famous people more famous and viral news more viral. But math doesn’t discriminate on quality or worth (sorry, America!), so if you want people to see your book news from your author page, you will have to purchase advertising.

Facebook and Instagram advertising do actually work. (Presumably also Twitter, but I haven’t bought any ads there.) Ads take time and care to make attractive visuals and reach your intended demographic, but they aren’t that expensive. I’ve gained followers, event guests, and course attendees because they saw a promoted post. I’ve never spent more than $20 to run an ad for a couple of days, as a final push after I’ve been talking about my event for several weeks. Most of the people who attended Instagram For Writers already knew me, in person or online, but about 25% clicked through an ad that reminded them they meant to sign up.

Separating your personal and professional life online costs more time. Maintaining two accounts per platform is a drag when you want—need!—to focus on writing. I find it challenging enough to write “real” micro-essays on Instagram, clever/helpful writing tips on Twitter, and check in with my cousins on Facebook, plus remembering to text my mom. Administrating an author page is a little more difficult than updating a personal profile.

If you’re dead set on keeping literary and personal separate, that doesn’t have to mean two accounts. If something is truly private, don’t put it on the internet. And our privacy is far more valuable to us than violating it is to anyone else, until we become famous enough to hire bodyguards, and then we can also hire a social media manager.

Using your personal profile as your professional page lets you include your work among the genuine moments shared with your friends. “Look, Rashid’s walking!” “So excited about my new cover!” and “I had a great hike last week!” are far more engaging than “Buy my book,” “Review my book,” “Tell your friends about my book.” Instead of asking friends to watch a commercial, your work sits amidst the many things you mutually find interesting.

If a separate author page is still best for you, ease your way:

  • Set up an automatic feed to post to your Facebook page whenever you write something new on Instagram/Twitter/your blog (I use IFTTT, it’s free).
  • Share non-private posts from your personal profile to your page, so your fans see some of the personal you.
  • Use a feed planner like Preview or A Color Story to set up your Instagram pipeline, and a hashtag through IFTTT to selectively post Instagrams to your author page. (Yes, we’re behind on the Brevity Instagram, good stuff coming in July!)

Promoting a book and guarding one’s privacy are not 100% exclusive, but it’s worth keeping in mind that if you’re writing nonfiction, you will at some point lose control of how much you’re willing to share. Someone’s going to walk up to you at a family event and strongly disagree with how you described a scene from your own truth. Don’t negotiate or pacify—just smile and say, “I can understand how your view would be different. I hope you write that story someday.”

Not engaging with a troll in person? Now that’s protecting your privacy.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. Why yes, she’s on Instagram.

The Successful Soirée

June 18, 2019 § 5 Comments

A painting of a French literary salon in the 17th century. A woman, center, is reading aloud as other guests sit around her. What happened to the days of relaxing on chaises while gentle voices declaimed new prose to the patrons of their work? I refer, of course, to the literary salon, that gentle occupation of poets and writers since the 16th century, in which “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

The days of discreet servants with trays of petits fours may have ended, but the salon lives on. Rather than the “public reading” with distinct audience and readers on a stage or behind a lectern, showcasing workshop writing or promoting a new book, the literary salon blends readers and audience, formal presentation and conversation. Plus, snacks.

Since most of us now lack servants and large reception rooms, the modern salon is best held in a public location. This also confers the advantage of inviting friends of friends and people you only know on the internet without risking the family silver or your own limited tolerance for guests.

For an easy and pleasant event, consider:

  • Don’t pay for space. Choose a bookstore, coffee shop or café that will welcome your business on a quiet evening (the salon I co-host meets on a Monday or Tuesday night). Most of your crowd will buy drinks or nibbles. If you’re feeling flush, buy the first round or a plate of cookies. Picking a place with refreshments also creates a party atmosphere.
  • Keep readings short: 3-5 minutes maximum per reader. This is more pleasant for the audience, especially first-time attendees who may not know what to expect, or people who are there as friend-support rather than for their love of all things literary.
  • Skip formal feedback. It’s not a workshop. But have social time after the readings for the audience to offer praise and ask questions of each other.
  • A featured reader can help attendance and raise the event profile. Give them 15-20 minutes to read, followed by a chat with the host and/or audience Q&A. Featured readers can be local authors, publishing professionals, or authors passing through your town for other engagements. Let them sell their own books, if they wish, but don’t mess with consignment or paperwork. Keep it low-key. If you’re in a bookstore, see if they’ll do a display of books that complement the featured author’s.
  • Decide what genres you want to have: prose only, poetry, totally open mic and people who want to can bring a guitar? Consider allowing people to read a favorite passage by another author, to participate with lower personal stakes.
  • Announce a “Save the Date” a month in advance. Remind possible guests two weeks out, one week out, and 3-2-1 days out. Post on social media and put a flyer in the venue. Facebook, group texts, WhatsApp and email are all great ways to get the message out. MeetUp can also be effective if you start a group there. Encourage friends to share the event, because endorsements help guests decide to come. Small groups are congenial, larger groups are exciting. Win-win!
  • Make sure there’s parking, and unless it’s hugely obvious, mention where to park on the invite. Make it easy for your guests to come instead of begging off at the last minute.
  • Appoint a host (or yourself) to welcome people who arrive, let them know they’re in the right place, and introduce them immediately to someone else in the room if they look lost. It makes a world of difference to hear “Oh, you’ve got to meet Joan, she writes flash, too” instead of awkwardly sitting alone until the reading starts.
  • The host can also sign up readers. (Get a one-sentence bio to announce them with, because it makes everyone feel a little special.) Try to put a writer you know to be good at the beginning and end of the evening. Put the least-experienced reader third. The momentum of the first two will help them, and by the end, no-one will remember if a nervous author had a hard time five people ago.
  • Have your host quietly run a stopwatch. A salon is more casual than a formal reading, but if a reader hits 6 minutes and still going strong, gently interrupt, thank them, and lead the applause.
  • Take pictures, and post to social media afterwards. Your readers feel saluted and it reminds people to come next time. (Isn’t our salon’s teahouse adorable? Flip through!)

Why do all this planning? Well, it’s fun. A no-stress, no-criticism salon is a great way to share your work with a receptive audience and talk shop with writers and readers. You also build a bond with your venue, so when your next book comes out, they are a prime spot to host your formal, all-about-me reading. And you get to feel like Madame Pompadour without having to wear a giant powdered wig and carry a special head-scratching stick.

Bonne écoute!

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Her webinar Instagram For Writers: Improve Your Craft, Grow Your Readership is available on-demand at Hidden Timber Books.

Instagram for Writers

June 6, 2019 § 36 Comments

Flatlay of laptop, teacup, teapot, sugar, milk and paper on wooden tableSocial media is a distraction from our writing. Social media can be a support system for our writing—creating community, building readership, and allowing us to practice our craft. Writer Twitter is definitely a Thing, with terrific advice in #askagent, and editors tweeting calls for submissions and pitches. Writer Facebook includes genre- and demographic-based groups that foster literary citizenship and build real-life connections as online acquaintances meet at conferences and readings.

But Instagram? The one that’s all about the pictures? Sure, there’s #bookstagram, where book bloggers share their reading piles and recommendations and authors reveal new covers. But what’s the benefit for writers on a primarily visual platform, and why should they bother?

Instagram is (so far) the calmest, sanest, and most relaxing social platform, with three big benefits for writers:

1) Make genuine connections with people who want to read your work.

Writers don’t need 20,000 followers on Instagram. Writers need engaged followers. “Engaged” means people who like or comment on your posts, and a good engagement rate is about 1%. That’s right: If you have 100 followers, and one person comments, you’re doing well.

This is not how most people think about Instagram. We see “influencers” with 200K followers and ask why we should even bother. But look closer:

Influencer AllThatIsShe – 529K followers, engagement about 0.7%

Memoirist Dani Shapiro – 19.3K followers, engagement about 1%

Memoirist Esmé Weijun Wang – 9.4K followers, engagement about 0.8%

All three of these people are proportionally influential. The influencer makes fun and funny visual jokes. The writers share writing news, book tours, personal stories behind their work, and moments of joy and poetic wonder from their lives. AllThatIsShe’s comments include lots of casual interaction like sharing summer plans and laughter at her clever photographs. Dani and Esmé’s readers give their own responses to prompts, wish the writers well, share corresponding moments from their own lives. They actively engage in meaningful dialogue with the writer and her work. That 1% are people who will show up to a reading and pre-order your book.

Instagram is economical. You don’t have to fly across the country to a conference that might take 50 waking hours. Spend that same time in 15-minute Instagram sessions interacting with writers you’d like to know, and that’s 200 days of cost-free relationship building. You don’t even have to wear pants.

2) Write better.

The Instagram caption is perfect for encapsulating a moment. In 50-100 words, writers can practice craft at the sentence level. We get to write in short, manageable chunks on busy days.

When writing captions, tell a moment that is a whole moment. Stay in the scene, or in a single thought. The medium is the message: there is no “and then I realized…” because the venue says that for you. Being a caption establishes, “I thought this was important to crystallize and share with my readers.”

Writing in this constrained form is the ultimate flash. How fast can you bring a reader into your mood? How much emotional impact can you create in under a minute? Can you draft a killer first sentence that makes readers click to read the whole thing? That’s a skill all writers need for work in every medium.

3) Get Inspiration and encouragement.

When I’m posting regularly, I see more stories in the world. I’m more likely to ask questions of the people around me, and truly listen. This spills over into my longform writing, making me more curious about my characters and more conscious of the circumstances that make people who they are.

Posting a micro-essay is like a low-stakes “submission” to the world. There’s no “dislike” button, so I get the encouragement without the rejection. The level of engagement tells me what people enjoy reading, and comments suggest future blogging topics for Brevity and writing questions to address in my next book. Every little heart makes me feel like someone is interested in what I have to say and reminds me to write again tomorrow.

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If you’re just getting started on Instagram, or you want a more enjoyable experience that benefits your writing, a couple of quick tips:

  • Line breaks. One of the great mysteries of Instagram! To get an empty line between paragraphs, make sure there is NO SPACE at the end of the paragraph. Hit return. Type a period or emoji, NO SPACE, hit return and start your next paragraph. There are apps that allow you to type a caption and copy-paste with empty lines, but it’s an extra step. Keep your Insta commitment small.
  • Don’t worry about the follow/unfollow thing. Many “large” accounts are using follow-bots to artificially build their numbers. When you click through to see a profile with thousands of followers and very low followings, they are going to unfollow you. Only follow back if you’re truly interested in their content.
  • To build your own followers, find people you like from other social media or real life. When you follow, comment on their most recent post with what you like about it and say where else you know them from. Make sure your profile says what you do and your name is identifiable. Show your face in your profile picture. Participate in following threads on Facebook and Twitter.
  • An engaged Instagram presence doesn’t have to be time away from your writing. Unlike influencers who need current daily content, writers can do just fine with 1-5 posts/week. Don’t bother to post on the weekends unless you love it.
  • Don’t get sucked in. Stay limited and specific: take 20 minutes and post one picture, write one solid caption. In your down time (subway, waiting room, on the potty) take 15 minutes and comment on 10 people’s most recent post. Like 10 more posts you actually like. Follow 3 new people and comment on 1 post each. Then close the app and look around for a story to tell.

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Wanna know more about writing on Instagram? Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams will be teaching Instagram: Improve Your Craft, Grow Your Readership as a live webinar for Hidden Timber Press on June 15th. Sign up here!

The Death of a Writer

June 4, 2019 § 27 Comments

I’ve been reading my dearest friend’s journals. Spiral-bound notebooks, cloth-covered hardbacks, loose-leaf paper in three-ring binders. Sorting out teenage angst and adult story notes, false starts and full pages. Some of the words are casual, some inspiring, some sad.

I’m also digging through her computer. Looking at old story outlines and half-drafts of essays. Working on breaking into her phone.

I’m not snooping.

I’m her executor.

My friend wasn’t especially organized, but two other close friends and I found what we could after her death, tried to piece together what was worth keeping, what would be a beautiful memory and what was garbage. It was good for the three of us to read her old journals. We threw away the teenage angst and kept some of her adult musings. We pulled some of her unfinished writing from her old laptop and put it in a Dropbox so we could all look at it and feel a little less bereft.

Poking and prying and talking about her. My friend might not have wanted this. She might have been very angry that we’re reading her private thoughts, looking at rough drafts not ready for prime time. But she didn’t tell us, so we get to make that choice for her.

Stieg Larsson, writer of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, died without a will. His partner of 24 years, Eva Gabrielsson, was left in the cold. Larsson’s estranged father and his brother got everything. The estate is still in court 15 years later. It’s not only the millions of dollars: Gabrielsson contends Larsson’s work isn’t being presented to the world the way the late author wanted. But he didn’t write those wishes down.

Many “big deal” authors have literary trusts, where chosen trustees work with the author during their lifetime to establish how their work should be treated, and set up procedures to continue selling rights and allowing research after their death.

Most of us don’t need an elaborate trust to guard our posthumous literary interests. But as someone left behind, sorting through grief and papers while guessing what your dead person wanted sucks.

Who is going to deal with your literary legacy, and what do you want done?

  • Journals. Do you want them read? Burned? Photocopied and passed around the family? Placed in an archive?
  • Family photos and genealogical research for your memoir. Are they labeled, or at least in a labeled folder or envelope? Will anyone else know who these people are? Does anyone want to store physical papers?
  • Story notes. Manuscripts. Half-finished drafts. Should anyone try to finish them? Should anyone even read them?
  • Published work. Who do you want to have the copyrights? What do you want them to do with them? Do you want any royalty income to go to charity? Should the same person get the rights and the money?
  • Not technically literary, but treasured mementos from previous generations have the same problem as writing notes and unpublished work. Those left behind don’t know how to value them. If you have knickknacks, jewelry, scrapbooks, have you explained their meaning to your heirs? (If you haven’t, are they really worth keeping? Because someone has to agonize over your grandparents’ 50th anniversary album while standing over a garbage can. Just sayin’.)
  • Do you want your social media wiped or memorialized? Have you listed a legacy contact on Facebook? Any online-only friends who should be notified of your death?
  • What passwords and account numbers will someone need to wrap up your affairs?
  • Speaking of affairs, what should be deleted before your child or significant other finds it? The essay you didn’t publish to avoid hurting feelings? That chapter you decided was too personal to share? Who should go through your devices and do that?

You have the right to privacy after death. But unless you’re specific about what’s private, someone else will make those choices for you. Even if you don’t formally appoint a literary executor, write your wishes down. Use this simple writer’s will form from Neil Gaiman as a guide. Here’s more information about literary estate planning.

Share your feelings with whoever will likely clean out your stuff (and one other person in case you’re both hit by the same bus). If you want your devices wiped, say so. If you want your electronics explored, share the passwords with a trusted friend who doesn’t have physical access to your computer. If you don’t have a friend you trust that much, split it up: one friend gets the first half of each password and another friend gets the second half.

I’m still digging through my friend’s stuff. At the funeral, a woman I’d never met gave me a key to my friend’s safety-deposit box I hadn’t known existed. I’m waiting for paperwork from AOL to take over her email so I can get into her phone. Maybe there’s a letter or important bank information on her new laptop, maybe I’m supposed to figure it out like a puzzle. Maybe it would have been better to reformat and donate the electronics to needy children.

I don’t know. She didn’t tell me. So curiosity wins.

I hope I’m doing what’s right. But it is comforting to read her words. As it happens, I like one of her story outlines a lot, and maybe I’ll turn it into a book.

That, I know for sure she’d like. Because we talked about it.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Instagram: Improve Your Craft, Grow Your Readership as a live webinar for Hidden Timber Press on June 15th. Sign up here!

Talking Back

April 18, 2019 § 10 Comments

Many of us have sat in the classic writing workshop: the class reads a piece, a discussion happens, the writer keeps their head down and doesn’t talk. At the end of the conversation, the author might get to ask a couple of questions for clarification, or perhaps say something about their intention in writing the piece.

This can be useful—it’s good for writers to learn to listen to critique without defending against it, or pushing back with “what I meant to say was…” because if it’s not on the page, we didn’t say it. It can also be traumatic, especially if the class misinterprets a point in the story and spends the whole time arguing about a meaning that doesn’t matter.

In playwriting, authors often have help. The “dramaturg” is a writing coach/researcher/helper/challenger who assists the playwright. In post-performance discussions, or after rewrites in rehearsal, the dramaturg often leads the discussion, making sure the author’s concerns are addressed. The dramaturg asks follow-up questions, gets audience members and actors to clarify points, redirects the discussion if “how you should write this” starts bubbling up, and afterward, helps the writer process and apply the feedback that’s most helpful to their work.

Writing teachers do some of the same work leading workshop, but often, their job is focused on keeping the workshop moving as a whole, rather than being an individual writer’s advocate. Sometimes, workshops go off the rails or turn into a pile-on, leaving the writer bruised and defensive, or questioning their writing ability rather than the impact of a specific essay. Without an active mediator, it’s hard to truly receive feedback and weed out what’s helpful from what was a tangent in the discussion.

At Lithub, Beth Nguyen argues for a sea change:

Perhaps it’s time—way past time—to rethink how we workshop. To make it less a test of endurance and more a space of open discussion. Perhaps it’s time to undo the silence of workshop, to let students be part of conversations about their work rather than mere witnesses.

When she began teaching nonfiction, she discovered a key issue. The space of discussing memoir and essay is even harder, because in critiquing the work, there is always some element of talking about the author. Nguyen points out that with cultural and racial context missing between writers and readers, this can be a terrible experience for the author, particularly for underrepresented students.

I was also tired of workshop spending so much time talking about a plot point or logistical matter that could easily be cleared up by simply asking the writer what was intended. So one day I did just that: started asking the writer what they meant. And the entire workshop shifted. The mood lifted. The writer and the rest of the workshop could talk about intention—what carried through and what didn’t. The writer could engage in process during workshop.

When we unsilence workshop, when we invite students to participate in the discussion of their own work, everything changes: the writer is no longer passively accepting comments. Rather, they become who they should be: the creators and navigators of their own work.

The workshoppers, in turn, are asked to do less prescribing (I want to see more of this; I want this or that to happen; I didn’t want that character to be here) and more questioning. Why did you use first-person? How important is the sister character supposed to be? Instead of a typical old-school workshop comment such as “I want to see more about the mother,” there’s a question: “We don’t see much about the mother—how important of a character is she?” The former is a demand; the latter is an opening.

When the writer gets to talk about what they’re trying to do, they discover something more about what they actually are doing. Almost always, they reveal information that they’d been holding back. In other words, their talking within workshop, rather than at the end of it, helped them process their own process.

In her classes, Nguyen further incorporated the writers’ agency (and the role of the dramaturg) by encouraging students to set the tone of the discussion they wanted to have. Her writers submitted their work for discussion with an added statement of what they hoped to cover, including areas in their work of particular concern in this draft. And,

On workshop day, the writer who was “up” began discussion by talking about how they wrote the story. Where ideas came from, why they wrote it, what they were trying to do. They got to set the stage for their own workshop.

Nguyen writes about how this method sometimes blends with classic “author-doesn’t-talk” workshop style, and what benefits she’s seen in her students work, and her own, from opening up the discussion to include the author. Many of us seeing frustration in our students—and ourselves—can benefit from talking more in workshop.

Read Beth Nguyen’s whole essay at LitHub.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

The Writing Conference in Your Living Room

April 9, 2019 § 4 Comments

“That’s it, Bob! I need to re-order the material thematically instead of chronologically!”

Not everyone gets to AWP, and even those who did can be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the event. How much you take home in professional growth is often tied to your willingness to self-promote and talk to strangers, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Even smaller writing conferences mean spending on registration, airfare, hotel and food, which quickly adds up.

If only there was somewhere to get expert writing and publishing advice and make professional connections…but in pajamas, and with coffee that didn’t cost $8.

That time has come.

Many of you attended Village Writing School’s online Memoir Summit last year, watching agents, coaches and writers giving prerecorded interviews and presentations on writing and selling memoir. One of the things that struck me was how many genuine professional connections were built: writers connected through the event’s Facebook group; agents and editors offered to respond to queries specifically from attendees. And it was all free!

April 25-29, Village Writing School presents a Literary Agent Summit, covering trends in publishing, first-page tips and tricks, reviews of real queries and first pages, how to make your book stand out in the slush, and more. Maybe you’re not yet at the submission stage, but demystifying the agent-getting process and learning about publishing means that later, you’re not going to type “The End” and then say “Um….now what?” Plus, I’ve often had key realizations about my manuscript when I try to recast an element as an agent suggests—I may not use their literal suggestion, but trying an idea always open doors.

As with last year’s memoir summit, the Literary Agent Summit will be free online for a week before becoming a pay-per-view. During that week, you’ll be able to watch the interviews and presentations wherever you are, whenever you like.

Speakers include:

  • Katharine Sands at Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency
  • Jennifer Grimaldi at Chalberg & Sussman
  • Madelyn Burt at Stonesong
  • Jennifer Unter at The Unter Agency
  • Laurie Chittenden at Tessler Literary Agency
  • Emily Keys at Fuse Literary
  • Eric Myers at Myers Literary Management
  • Andy Ross at The Andy Ross Literary Agency
  • Amaryah Orenstein at GO Literary
  • Kelly Peterson at Rees Literary Agency
  • Lynnette Novak from The Seymour Agency
  • Leslie Zampetti from Dunham Literary, Inc.
  • Editor Nettie Finn from St. Martin’s Press
  • Editor Melissa Singer from Tor/Forge

There’s also an option to add a paid query or first page review, a pitch critique, or a 15-minute meeting with an agent.

Village Writing School has grown quite a bit from its small Northwest Arkansas beginnings, and now reaches writers all over the world with free and affordable online courses and content. So many of us can’t dash off to every conference we’d like to—take advantage of this collection of industry experts dashing over to you.

Register here.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Tiny Water Bottles

March 28, 2019 § 34 Comments

Many people think I’m an overachiever with everything under control. If you’re also an overachiever, you probably understand the hollow laughter that inspires in me. So often, the symptoms of organization—paper planners, to-do apps, regular social media appearances—mask what feels from the inside like abject laziness.

But Allison, you reassure me, you do a lot. You blog! You edit! You write! You travel all over!

Thanks. That’s true, and I’m privileged to get to do those things. Paradoxically, I often feel the most lazy when I’ve gotten the most done. Sure, I checked six things off my list…but I know in my heart I did them because they were easy instead of working on a larger, more difficult goal. I vacuumed instead of working on my proposal. Ran errands instead of analyzing the structure of my novel. Read 100 pages for clients instead of writing one of my own.

Often, what feels like “laziness” is actually procrastination, anxiety about the outcome, or not knowing where to start. And no matter how many tasks get accomplished, I feel lazy when the most important thing isn’t done. When I’m avoiding something with big stakes, or that takes a skill I don’t have yet. Sure, I’ll learn the skill as I go, but I’ll start out uncomfortable with my own incompetence and unsure how I’m going to finish. Or I’m faced with a big job I don’t yet know how to break into steps. I’ll move it to tomorrow’s list instead of tackling any part of it, because starting would also mean admitting I might not know how to do it.

Here’s what helps.

The cartoonist Jessica Abel, who also runs workshops for creatives learning to control their time, pointed out in a recent webinar:

Priority means one.

You can’t have multiple priorities on a list, because a priority is one thing. Sure, your priorities may change throughout the day, or as you shift from your artist self to your family self or from the office to the studio to the home. But at any given time, you can only have one priority.  Likewise,

Many projects=no projects.

The amount of great ideas we have and are capable of executing far exceed the number of hours available to work. Being able to do a thing well doesn’t mean the thing fits our plans. It’s OK to put great new projects on the back burner while focusing on one project until it’s done.

About two months ago, these two ideas changed how I work. I started picking one project and doing it until it was done. I hedged a little: one personal project and one client project at a time, but rotating lets me rest my brain. I can work for 6-8 focused hours, but I can’t really do more than 4 hours in a day (plus breaks!) on one thing.

The third key to feeling less lazy?

Tiny steps.

Like, ridiculous tiny. Like instead of “be healthier” which is not a doable goal, because really, what would you do if I pointed and said “your job right this minute is to be healthier”? Um, I’ll get right on that?

So I backed up. I want to drink more water.

Still not a doable step.

I need a water bottle I can carry around and also wash out and re-use.

That I can do. I figure out it needs to be small and lightweight, because I won’t carry it if it’s heavy. Step one isn’t even “buy water bottle”—it’s “look online to see what lightweight water bottles exist,” so when I walk into the store I know what I’m looking for.

The last piece that finally fell into place, that helped me feel less “lazy”?

External deadlines.

I wish I could put “finish X by this date” on my calendar, but I just don’t. It doesn’t always have to be a deadline imposed by another person, but I need a reason beyond “I want to be done by then.”

I want to finish my new writing retreat website before attending a festival where I’m talking about writing retreats.

I want to finish my book proposal before going to AWP so I can meet small presses and be ready to send to anyone who seems interested.

Are these actually any more solid than “finish X by this date”? Nope. But it works, so I’ll keep doing it.

My one-project-at-a-time-with-a-deadline plan is working so far. I finished the website. The proposal is well under way. I’m flying through client pages. At a cafe, my writing buddy looked at my water bottle and said, “It’s so tiny!”

“Yeah, but it’s a doable goal!” I said. “It’s little enough I can drink two or three refills while sitting here, and that feels like I’m getting something done!” Then I went and peed for the third time in two hours.

Next time you’re feeling lazy, ask Am I anxious about the outcome? Worried I don’t have the ability to do this? Overwhelmed by where to start? Made helpless by too many ‘priorities’?

Then pick one tiny step.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor, and leader of the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats. Come say hello at AWP!

 

 

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