December 12, 2017 § 20 Comments
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my loved ones gave to me:
Twelve children quarreling
Eleven guests arriving
Ten addiction triggers
Nine Secret Santas
Eight dinners cooling
Seven picky eaters
Six spouses slacking
Five traaaaaa-ffic jaaaaaaams!
Four messy rooms
Three loud screens
Two touchy in-laws
And an obligation Christmas party.
I am somewhat notoriously not a holiday person. I love my family, I’m grateful there aren’t that many of them, and I live in a country where December is a festive shopping season. I’ve managed to be outside the United States for the past ten Christmases, and this one I’ll be in Taiwan.
Not everyone is that lucky. My writer buddy shows up distraught–she’s flying back to Ohio, and the in-laws who aren’t speaking to anyone else are refusing to attend the family gathering and insisting my buddy’s family come see them in Nebraska. “How come we’re your lowest priority?!”
My acquaintance is in the middle of a divorce-based argument affecting how many and what kind of presents the children can have. “You’re not spending my money on that!”
An artistic director I admire is fighting her board of directors over employee schedules while mounting a 50-child production of A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim has managed to lose three pairs of crutches in three weeks. “They’re just going to have to do overtime.”
I suspect, Gentle Reader, you have similar items on your holiday list. In-laws. Neighbors you’d decided not to gift who show up with gifts. Debating how much to tip the super who was gone the week the boiler failed. Family from the other end of the political/moral spectrum. Tight budgets. Writer-friends who didn’t get Cat Person.
But your holiday experience is up to you. You don’t “have to” do anything. You may not like the consequences of not doing it, but it’s still a choice.
So give yourself the gift of time. Say no to more things than usual. Make a list right now of the things you expect/are expected to do this season, and choose your favorites. Ask your family what traditions they actually value and what’s rote. Don’t wait to be asked to the cookie party that takes five hours of prep and results in a carload of baked goods–go ahead and block that time out for something you want to do.
All that passive voice you’ve carefully rooted out of your writing? Employ it now.
What a shame our schedule filled up so much–let’s do something in January.
Our budget is gone–it just devastates me we won’t be able to make it.
Goodness, it sounds like that situation really bothers you–I hope it gets sorted out.
Let people be responsible for their own feelings. There’s a special holiday magic in “I agree, it’s just awful how things turned out. Oh gosh, the oven! I love you, goodbye!”
If you are an inveterate truth-teller, go preheat your oven to 350° and keep it going until December 26th. That way it’s ready when a phone call needs interrupting. (Brevity does not advise leaving your oven unattended. Please use all home appliances in accordance with manufacturer’s directions.)
Are you a fixer? Decide in advance where to spend your energy instead of having “problem-solver” thrust upon you. Pick one event or relationship you care about having in good working order–the dinner, the mother-in-law, the kids’ presents–and let everything else be someone else’s problem. It’s not even your job to assign who takes it on. It’s OK to say, “That’s not something I love doing. If you’d like to plan it, let me know when and where to show up and I’ll see you then.”
Refuse to engage with drama. Carry your notebook. When snippy Aunt Betty has something nasty to say, whip out your pen and ask her to repeat that, please, it’s perfect for a character in your book. Ask her to slow down when needed. Wait, do you want a hyphen in “streetwalker” or is it all one word? Is there a better adjective for Cousin Sally’s dress? What about “sleazy”–how do you feel about “sleazy”? I think that would tighten up the sentence. Avidly transcribe until she shuts up.
Finally, plan your escape. Even if you’re “on vacation,” it’s OK to go to the coffee shop for an hour and visit with your work. At home, leave a good book stashed under the bathroom sink, in the garage or basement or on the back porch. When a fight breaks out at the table, mutter “Oh dear, something must have disagreed with me.” That’ll give you about 25 minutes before anyone comes looking.
And if all else fails? Hit me up. I know a great noodle shop in Taipei.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. If you want to hear about Taiwan, please do sign up for her bimonthly adventure news.
December 5, 2017 § 26 Comments
Flash memoir is much more difficult than “only 750 words” suggests. As readers, we see finished pieces. Work that’s had a writing buddy or teacher or group say, “I don’t understand that bit,” or “There’s a problem there. Fix it.” But as writers, we’re wading through the murky middle, trying to believe in the Santa Claus of “All the professional writers you love write terrible first drafts! So terrible they will never show you!”
Without seeing, it’s hard to believe.
That’s where reading for a literary magazine (if we can) or reading fellow writers’ work in a group or class serves us. We get to see the pages that need another draft. As a freelance editor, I see similarities in short nonfiction-in-progress. Often, pieces don’t resolve, or don’t have the key story moments of beginning, middle and end. Sometimes the narrator tells what they experienced instead of making the reader feel what they felt. But the most common challenge in flash essays is the very last line.
About half the essays I see could cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper, tighter, cleaner “button” to make even a short piece feel satisfyingly finished.
Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps as writers we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we’re so used to slogging forward it’s hard to stop that inertia at word 739. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have felt a need to work on that element of our craft.
This example is mine, for the purpose of this post—but I’m copying the structure of the issues I see most often.
[Imagine this finishes an essay about a couple visiting India, trying to get on a blocked-off beach to watch the sunset. They’ve irritated each other throughout the story in small ways; he wants to protect/insulate her, she wants to be a little dangerous/culturally insensitive.]
The policeman tried to stop us, but I’d yammered at him in English I knew he didn’t understand and ducked under the plastic tape. “He won’t shoot us, we’re tourists,” I said, and Mark ducked under, too, his face twisting into sorry at the cop and exasperated with me. We sat on piled broken concrete on the dirty beach while the sun vanished behind an oil tanker.
How can we wrap this sucker up, in a way that says something emotionally meaningful happened here, and it was a big enough deal that we bothered to write about it?
Some things to avoid:
- Don’t summarize.
The rest of our trip had been terrible, too—if only I could have made this evening work, maybe I could have made our marriage work.
That’s when I knew I had to leave him if I was ever going to enjoy my life.
- Don’t explain.
I hated that he wasn’t ready for the adventure I wanted my life to be.
Even in India, we were destined to clash, our different backgrounds never letting us truly understand each other.
- Don’t justify.
As the sun set, I realized I couldn’t stay with him—I needed a partner who didn’t judge me.
If he didn’t want to travel wild, he shouldn’t have gone with me, and I wasn’t taking him any further.
- Don’t excuse.
I wish I’d been nicer, but I was twenty, still unaware of privilege easing my way, unappreciative of what Mark meant by “relax honey, just relax.”
Thank goodness I outgrew that stage, even if it did take until our 40th wedding anniversary.
Summarizing and explaining are subconscious manifestations of our fear of not writing well enough. They tell the reader, I’d better spell it out for you in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.
Instead, use the last line to either gently enfold the reader in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. You could:
- Take one step further than the reader thought you’d go. Go to a higher/deeper emotional level.
I wished one of us would fill our pockets with ragged cement shards and step into the waves.
[NB one line too many is a challenge for every single writer no matter what level, because I originally added It would be easier than breaking up, then realized that was one too many.]
- Twist. Show us the opposite of everything the narrator has felt or done so far.
I wanted the cop to say no, I wanted Mark to say no, I wanted someone—anyone—to stop me, send me home, tell me where that was.
[I don’t love the “that” in the last line, so I’d wrestle more with that in a real essay.]
- Admit guilt/fault/complicity.
“See, it’s fine,” I said, and we both knew it wasn’t—it wouldn’t ever be.
Mark’s shadow slumped on the sand, and I missed the man I’d ruined.
I reached for Mark’s hand, and we squeezed hard, each hoping we were doing something right.
Sure, there are other ways to end a flash piece strong (feel free to share examples in the comments!) But these are some techniques to get started. Once the emotion is on the page, sharpen your pencil and ask of your last line, what purpose do you serve? Let the sentence tell you if it belongs.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She just returned from scouting locations in India for a May 2018 writing workshop, hence this example.
November 28, 2017 § 9 Comments
We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.
“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”
Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”
We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.
Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.
Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.
These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.
For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:
This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class. I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.
For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).
I wrote this during my missionary work in China.
I’m a professional knitting teacher.
Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.
Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.
Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.
November 21, 2017 § 25 Comments
Have we got an offer for you!
Would you like to improve your writing craft today? By, say, 10%?
This doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but after editing essays and books and posts for the Brevity blog, for experienced writers and new writers and everyone in between, I’ve noticed a lot of repetition.
Not from book to book, although I see that. Not even from paragraph to paragraph, although I see that too.
Within the same sentence.
Sometimes it’s telling as well as showing:
He looked like an old man with his grey hair and gnarled hands.
Tell it once:
His hands were gnarled.
Better yet, show it in an action:
He ran a gnarled hand through his grey hair.
He picked at the tablecloth with a gnarled hand.
Sometimes it’s showing the same thing multiple times:
Jane patted my shoulder, gently massaging my arm to calm me down as she said, “Shhh, there, there.”
Show it once:
Jane rubbed my shoulder. “Shh, there, there.”
(Using an action as a dialogue tag is a great way to avoid repeating information.)
Sometimes it’s a festive riot of showing, telling, and over-explaining:
I picked up my phone and texted my boyfriend:
Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts
Although the only thing I spelled correctly was his name, when I sent him the text I thought it was very clear.
Pare it down:
I texted my boyfriend:
Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts
I thought it was very clear.
Texting implies the phone is in the narrator’s hand. There’s comedy in the juxtaposition of the garbled text and “I thought it was very clear.”
As writers, we worry we’re not good enough to get our point across in fewer words. That our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense?
But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Putting together clues to understand behavior, noticing dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guessing a character’s thoughts from their gestures—all these moments of detective work engage the reader more fully in the story. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—let them meet you on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.
This also applies to “filtering”:
I looked at James as he stomped over.
I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.
I heard him shout my name.
“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”
James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”
Removing the filtering lets the reader imagine themselves in the narrator’s shoes. It’s subtle, but it puts the reader a tiny bit more in the emotion of the scene. It lets them feel for us, instead of telling them what we felt.
If you’re having a wildly creative day, by all means go generate new material. But if you’re having a day where you should do some writing…and you’ll feel better if you do…but it’s all kind of looking like a slog—start slogging. Pick some pages and use the Find tool to spot “looked” “felt” “heard” “thought” and variations on those verbs. Ask of each one, “Do I really need you here?” Scan your sentences for repetitions and over-explaining. Ask in each place, “Can I make the reader work a little harder?”
It’s not our job to make everything make sense. Our job is to lay out enticing clues and let the reader solve the puzzle with us. To immerse them in our world–but learning, feeling, and making their own sense.
Photo credit: Cinecom Int’/Island Alive/REX/Shutterstock (5871592c)
November 16, 2017 § 4 Comments
When you’re wandering the aisles of the local megastore, already tired of Christmas carols you’ve been hearing since Halloween…it’s time to pop in those earbuds and enjoy the latest Brevity Podcast.
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.
Episode #7 features an interview with Kristen Arnett, author of Felt In The Jaw, on debut authorship, the value of literary social media, and how she got her beloved agent. We also continue our mini-series on conferences with on-the-spot chats from speakers and participants at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking all things submissions with JoBeth McDaniels, Geeta Kothari, Erika Dreifus, Irene Landsman and a few more Hippocampers.
Show Notes: Episode #7 People and Books
Find out more about recording your own work
Submit your One-Minute Memoir to Brevity
Lisa Ko’s The Leavers
Terry Heyman’s The Kushner Family Passover Haggadah in McSweeney’s and A Letter to the Woman In Whose Body I’ve Lived For 38 Years, From Her Period at The Higgs Weldon
Rebecca Fish Ewan’s By the Forces of Gravity
Memoirists Anonymous: Turning Trauma Into Narrative was led by Laurie Jean Cannady
I Remember: Unlocking Memories to Lay the Foundation of Your Memoir was led by Jamie Brickhouse
Additional music, Later Fruits, thanks to Axletree via freemusicarchive.org
November 9, 2017 § 44 Comments
This is the blog post I didn’t write because it was a terrible idea. So why even start?
This is the blog post I didn’t write because the ceiling was leaking.
This is the post I didn’t write because I couldn’t figure out the coffeemaker and then I knocked it over.
This is the post I didn’t write because jet lag.
This is the post I didn’t write because the goddamn neighbor’s goddamn TV is so goddamn loud I can make out words through the wall.
This is the post I didn’t write because Facebook made me mad. And sad.
This is the post I didn’t write because I sat down and then the doorbell rang.
This is the post I didn’t write because I’d rather take a walk and self-care is important.
This is the post I didn’t write because don’t force it.
This is the blog post I half-assed through before deadline and I can always put it in Drafts and write something better, at some other time, when my mood and surroundings will be perfect.
This is the free-form piece I begrudgingly typed because even poorly chosen words I will later delete count and I can tick it off in my Productive app and the app will make a pleasing sound like Pavlov’s Writer.
This is the morning I should feel lucky and privileged to get to write while lots of other people go to real jobs and do real things like grown-ups.
Goddamn that TV is loud.
This is the blog post I’m forcing myself to write while children play ball and shriek in Spanish in the schoolyard my Airbnb backs up to.
This is what I am writing instead of the grant proposal I promised to write, instead of the novel I should be working on, instead of the memoir proposal I should also be working on, instead of just freeing myself to write anything in my notebook and open many doors and explore details more thoroughly like my respected teacher told me to.
This is me writing instead of nudging the teacher for feedback on the manuscript I sent even though I warned him it was really bad.
This is the writing I do through self-doubt and worry and too many things on my list. This is the writing I do instead of knocking on the wall and telling the neighbor to please, please turn it down even just a little. This is the writing I do before I go buy a sticky pad and leave a passive-aggressive post-it on their door. This is the writing I do because yes, I’m lucky and yes, it’s not coal-mining and yes, lots of people think they want this life of staying in a cool fun neighborhood in London all by myself with nowhere I have to be on time, because the price of having the life you want is living the life you have.
This is the blog post that says you are not alone in your bad mood and imperfect surroundings and terrible ideas. That I am not alone in sadness and jet lag and irritation and the antsy pull to get out of the chair and do something, anything else. To get out of my life and do something else, except there is nothing else I want to do as much as I want to write and not writing is worse than writing (not by much).
This is checking my tool box and wondering where the secret tool that makes it easy is. This is suspecting everyone else has the secret tool and they’re all only pretending it’s hard so I don’t feel bad.
This is ridiculous envy.
This is the typing before the writing starts, the typing or scribbling or concentrated thinking without an electronic device, the commitment to sit down and write, whether or not it sucks. This is moving the fingers or the pen on an empty tank and hoping the act of moving will make it full. This is watching the word count tick up past the imposter mark.
This is facing the empty page today and knowing it will be there again tomorrow.
This is saying, come get me empty pages. I’m not ready but I’m here anyway.
This is writing anyway.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Of course the neighbors turned the TV off when she finished. Like, on literally the very last goddamn word.
November 7, 2017 § 16 Comments
Last week in my workshop on self-editing at Mid-American Review’s Winter Wheat Festival of Writing, writer Terry Korth Fischer asked a great question:
How do you stop editing as you write?
I was a little confused by this question, because that’s normally not my problem. (My problem is Ass In Chair.) But everyone else in the room nodded–How to avoid editing ourselves in early drafts? How to keep the writing flow going without second-guessing every word?
Online, there’s some common solutions to compulsive self-editing:
Turn off your monitor. I think I’d freak out and have to keep turning it on to hit “save” every minute. For fabulous touch-typists maybe?
Start each day with a fresh page–at the end of a writing session, copy the last sentence into a new document along with some instructions to yourself about what’s next. Next session, start from there.
Write with a timer. Don’t stop or go back until the timer rings. Suzanne Roberts does a variation on this: for dedicated writing time, she sets a timer for an hour. If she checks social media, gets lost in research or leaves the chair, she restarts the timer. Maybe restarting the timer on each edit could break the habit?
Write by hand. It’s harder to delete pen on paper.
…I don’t do any of those things. What keeps me from self-editing too early?
Whether we’re quitting smoking or unhealthy eating or nail-biting (guilty!), it’s hard to replace a habit with nothing. First ask, what problem is the existing habit fixing?
Our brain nags to edit because we’re afraid. Anne Lamott says,
I’d write a first draft that was maybe twice as long as it should be, with a self-indulgent and boring beginning, stupefying descriptions […] and no ending to speak of. The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.
We’re afraid if we don’t stop and fix it RIGHT NOW, it’s going to be terrible forever. How can we reassure our tiny, frightened lizard brain, “It’s OK, I’m going to come back to it, I promise”?
What works for me:
- Edit first. For ongoing projects, I spend the first 15-20 minutes reviewing yesterday’s work. Tweaking words and sentences helps me get back into the flow of the story. I rarely do a massive rewrite–if something’s pretty bad, I’ll start the scene again from a different angle, or accept the challenge to write a new scene addressing the problems in yesterday’s work.
- Work on deadline. Most of my Brevity blogs get written about two hours before going live. My newsletter stories go out bimonthly. I feel worse about being late than being imperfect.
- Placeholders. More research needed? Type LOOK UP COURT MANNERS. Not emotionally ready to dive into a memoir moment? NEED SCENE WITH MOM IN KITCHEN HERE. Sometimes I highlight the placeholder, or put XXX on either side so it’s easy to find in the next draft.
- Look ahead. The work I did yesterday can be bad–terrible, even. Because I’m not promising every word a place in the next draft. I already know I’ll be cutting whole chapters and rearranging paragraphs. That lowers the “fix it now!” urge.
- Plan to practice. Musicians painstakingly learn plenty of music they’ll never record. Artists fill pages with drawings they’ll never work on again (in fact, they have pads full of newsprint to sketch without wasting expensive paper). Dancers who don’t perform classical work still show up at the ballet barre to maintain their technique. Why should writers be exempt from skill development? Why not write pages and pages of a novel or memoir that are simply “practice” and not an early draft of something great? Why not intentionally write some essays that never get edited, that stop at a first or second draft? Every other artist spends time on foundations that don’t directly build a final piece, why should we get to skip skill development?
Whatever tips and tricks we use to stop editing as we go, it boils down to this: Let go of the dream of being perfect. Inside all our hearts is a tiny hope:
I’m going to make something beautiful, on the first try, without working very hard for it. My emotional experience and love of story will compensate for any lack of skill or coherence. I’m entitled to have my thoughts come out exactly right on the page, the first time, and as long as I’m still messing with it, it’s still the first time.
It doesn’t work that way.
We know it doesn’t.
Let it go.
Let it flow.
October 26, 2017 § 57 Comments
I need a sweater. So I go to the mall. (The mall is a temple of consumerism with an indoor ski slope overlooked by The Cheesecake Factory, because I live in Dubai.)
The first store specializes in argyle sweaters. Argyle is just not my thing. Do I:
A) Assume this brand is garbage and everything they will ever make is argyle.
B) Say “no thank you,” and head for another store, dismissing argyle from my mind because it’s not that big a deal, I’m shopping all day anyway and hey, someone else is going to love diamond plaids.
In the second store, I see a terrific red sweater. It’s got sleeves of exactly the right length and those cool little thumbholes so you can pull the wristbands over your hands, and it’s super soft. Then I look at the tag, and it’s 30% wool, which I am allergic to and makes me itch. Do I:
A) Laugh heartily at the incompetence and stupidity of anyone who would dare make a sweater with wool in it, exiting the store in the grip of near-hysteria?
B) Sigh, because it was otherwise just perfect, and remember the store because they will probably have something else I like another time, maybe a dress or a coat that is totally perfect instead of mostly perfect.
In the third store, I lay eyes on a gorgeous blue sweater. Sleeves, check. Thumbholes, check. No wool, check. In fact, it’s glorious!
My husband already bought me a blue sweater yesterday. I like that one too, and it came from a no-returns store (also a thing in Dubai), and today I really want a red one. Do I:
A) Think whoever made this sweater sucks, and they should never make another garment.
B) Sigh sadly because I already have a blue sweater, and resume the hunt for a red one.
You get where we’re going, right?
Rejection is not feedback.
Rejection is not feedback.
No really. Rejection. Is not. Feedback.
As writers submitting our work, we often get mad at ourselves and the process when our work is rejected. It’s easy to feel they thought my work was terrible, or I’m a bad writer, or I’ll never be any good.
None of those things can be determined from any single rejection.
The process of reading work for publication is not the process of reading to give feedback. When journal editors read, yes, they are evaluating the overall quality of the work. But they’re also asking, Does this fit our mission? Do I personally like it? Did we already accept something similar last week? They are assessing where the work fits in the overall structure of the magazine and its mission. A piece that isn’t the right fit must be let go, regardless of how good it is.
Our job as writers is to display our work to its best advantage, with skilled craft and professional format on the page. To enlist friends and fellow writers and teachers and mentors to give us constructive criticism, and to incorporate the notes that help us write the best essay or story or book we can. To do many drafts until we truly feel a piece is ready to send out. And that’s where our control stops. We can’t make the customer want our particular sweater–we can only be ready with an excellent sweater when they walk in, or a rack of sweaters we’ve prepared to appeal to a selection of shoppers. We must focus on knowing our buyers, reading their journals, finding out about their taste and style and mission and what else they recently bought–not agonizing about why one person didn’t want one thing.
Rejection is market research.
One rejection tells us one specific thing: this journal couldn’t use this piece at this time. None of those variables is a judgment on the quality of our work. Once we have ten or twenty or fifty rejections, that’s enough information to start reassessing. Is the piece really ready? Have I gotten any personal comments in my rejections? Have I gotten an outside opinion from a reader I trust? We don’t get better from nursing hurt feelings. Considering the answers to those questions helps us improve.
Rejection will always sting at least a little. For me, it hurts less when I have more submissions out, and when I remember that rejection is part of the job, that a 10% acceptance rate is excellent for a full-time professional writer and more than that is gravy.
Every “no thank you” is proof we’re doing the work, and getting our work out there. Any single “no thank you” is the equivalent of a single shopper not buying a single sweater–one failed transaction says nothing about that particular piece.
Besides, it’s Dubai. No matter how amazing it looks and feels, nobody needs a freaking sweater. Anybody got a nice cotton tunic?
October 24, 2017 § 8 Comments
(In which Katniss, Shrek and Scarlett O’Hara teach us about using larger social issues in memoir.)
Writer Stephanie Andersen and I were emailing about structure in memoir. We’d looked at the idea of ‘stasis’—that almost all books begin with an intolerable existing situation, something the protagonist must fight against and change.
Is the intolerable situation the larger situation for the world, or should it be an intolerable situation for the protagonist?
For instance, is Shrek’s stasis the fact that fairy tale creatures are being bought and sold and mistreated? Or is his intolerable situation when the fairy tale creatures are dropped off in his swamp? Is Scarlett O’Hara’s intolerable situation the fact that Ashley Wilkes is marrying Melanie Hamilton, or is it the Civil War?
We already know the answer, right?
It’s when it gets personal. When the bad world-situation personally affects the protagonist, giving them a strong motivation to act.
In a weird way, Scarlett survives the Civil War because she can’t let go of her hope to get with Ashley. Every decision she makes is based on the answer to “Will this get me closer to Ashley?” Many of the events of Gone With the Wind* happen in Atlanta because it’s a place where the war was especially bad, but the events are happening to and around Scarlett because she moved there to be closer (by proxy) to Ashley.
Scarlett’s intolerable situation isn’t “There’s a big war changing my life.” It’s “The one man I really want doesn’t want me.” Ashley’s wife Melanie, the war, and Scarlett’s own stubbornness are all obstacles of about equal weight—i.e., escaping the burning of Atlanta stops her from getting to Ashley, but so does Melanie being super nice and sweet in a way that keeps unintentionally thwarting Scarlett.
The war triggers the plot, because that’s when and why Ashley chooses Melanie, but it’s not what Scarlett is fighting against.
Is the intolerable situation in All the Light We Cannot See the war itself, the savagery of the world? Or is the intolerable situation Werner’s? That he cannot bear the thought of ending up in the coal mines? That he doesn’t want to die in darkness? You see where I’m going?
I haven’t read All The Light We Cannot See, but as an editor, I’d go with the personal. Let’s take a big literary sidestep to The Hunger Games. “This is a world that kills children on TV” is a horrible stasis for the country. But what makes the book Katniss’ story—what interrupts the stasis—is “This is a world that picks my sister to be killed on TV.” If anyone else’s name came out of the bowl, Katniss would feel bad and the story would be over at the end of Chapter One.
If your memoir or essay deals with a larger issue—recovery, a tragic accident, poverty —look for the key moment where the badness of the world intersects directly with the protagonist’s life. Watch for the big-picture place where the hero’s personal breaking point leads them to take an action toward a personal goal that also leads to changing the intolerable larger-world situation around them. In memoir, this is often a change in the protagonist’s relationship to the world, rather than changing the world itself. For example, an alcoholic’s recovery narrative isn’t going to end in a world without alcohol—but the protagonist has changed their own relationship to the world, so their worldview now shows other options/other modes of living. They have changed the world as they see it, and they’ve broken the stasis that gave them an intolerable situation at the beginning of the book.
Stephanie got specific (and gave me her permission to write this post):
I’m thinking about my memoir about my mother’s rape and wanting to know if I should frame the story about discovering my mother’s rape within the context of a world where women are often silent about their rapes or within the confines of my own world–where I long for my mother’s truth, her story, and to understand her silence.
Gentle Blog Reader, can you hear it? Stephanie already knows the answer. It’s right there in the question.
My memoir…where I long for my mother’s truth, her story, and to understand her silence.
And the larger context is there, of course—we can’t have the Hunger Games without the Games—but her memoir is about the intersection where her life is directly affected by the way rape silence exists in the larger world. The bad stasis is not that all women are silent—it’s that she discovered silence in her mother. It’s personal.
If you’re writing memoir against the background of a larger issue, definitely set up that larger situational stasis. It’s world-building—another useful concept from fiction—but for nonfiction. But your story isn’t the story of the world. It’s the story of how that situation personally made your life intolerable, and how you fought for change.
If you’re wondering how to find that intersection, read your query, or your pitch, or a paragraph summarizing your idea. What’s the stasis of the world? How does that directly affect the narrator? Chances are good the answer is right there on the page. Inside the big picture is the key moment where the issue intersects your life and starts your journey. It may take some time and thought, but listen to yourself.
You already know.
*(BTW blog readers, GWTW makes a good example but is (as you also already know) hugely problematic. There’s a great essay at Slate about how modern cinemas are handling the legendary-movie-vs-huge-racism issue).
October 19, 2017 § 11 Comments
When I teach a workshop, I like to audiotape it. Partly so I can send the recording to the class, which takes some of the stress off taking notes and lets everyone participate a little bit more. But also because ItalkamillionmilesanhourifIdon’tstopmyself.
The same thing applies to readings–when I head up for the podium, I leave my phone voice recorder running at my seat. After, I can listen–did I pause in the right places? Was there audience laughter I didn’t make room for? Often, just glancing back at my chair, seeing the phone there, reminds me slow down. Take a breath.
It’s valuable to listen to our own voices. Find out how long that piece really is with audience reactions in it. See if we really sound like a dork (spoiler: usually no). If the recorder is in the audience, it often picks up the kind of supportive murmurs and agreement breaths listeners make when we’re enjoying a story. Those noises aren’t always easy to hear in the moment, when we’re stressed about getting through a piece. And it’s always awesome to re-listen to applause.
As well as being a great tool to improve our own reading, there are places to submit audio stories. The Drum is a fantastic audio literary magazine, and Story Club specializes in nonfiction performance, with the author setting the text after a live show. The Brevity Podcast will be calling for One-Minute Memoirs next week. For all of these, you don’t have to be an audio whiz, but a few simple tricks will help you sound your best.
Check your phone. Phones usually record better than computers if you’re not using a separate microphone, and you probably have a native Voice Memos or Voice Recorder app. On most phones from the last three years, the built-in mic is good enough to get decent live-audience audio, and decent-to-good private taping. Look up where the mic is physically located on your phone, and point that end toward the reader. Try a couple of test recordings to see how close you want to hold it to your face–usually 4-6 inches away is good.
Check your app. On my iPhone, the Voice Memos app keeps going even when the screen locks or if I open another app. But when I’m doing more sophisticated recording with a plug-in microphone and an app called Motiv, the recording stops if the screen goes dark. I found that out the hard, embarrassing, can-I-please-interview-you-again way. Now I turn screen lock to “never” and put the phone in airplane mode. Some phones also stop recording if someone calls or texts. Find out for sure–or just put it in airplane every time.
Pad your space. Recordings are better with less echo. In a public reading, this is out of our control. Setting the phone on a wooden or plastic surface is better than a metal folding chair (they give a slight echo), but it’s not going to make a huge difference for personal recordings. If you’re taping for submission–like, say, the upcoming Brevity call for One-Minute Memoir–test the first paragraph in a couple of spaces to see what sounds best. Rooms with carpet, lower ceilings, and soft furniture work best. Walk-in closets are great. In a pinch, I record in my car (parked and turned off, until it gets so hot I have to take a break) or with a blanket or towel over my head. (Table fort, anyone?)
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I always bobble on a few words the first time I read an essay aloud. Plus, speaking into the recorder affects my pace. I try to tape a reading at least three times. Even if I can’t edit, I can at least pick the best take.
Whether you post or submit your work, or just listen for your own edification, taping is a great way to see how you sound. Often, extra lines or awkward phrases jump right out from the audio, or we instinctively smooth out a sentence as we speak it. Why not give it a test run? We’re hoping to hear from you soon, and we’ll tell you how and what next week!