February 18, 2022 § 10 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
Imagine sitting at your computer for hours, working on your memoir, confident that you’ve made real progress, then a gremlin sneaks in and whispers in your ear: That isn’t a story. What a terrible beginning. You’re wasting your time. No one will read this.
You could give up or you could turn to Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book.
When I thumb through my copy’s dog-eared pages, I’ll most always find that Williams has something encouraging to say, such as,
If you’re at the ‘I can believe I even started this crazy project stage, revive your enthusiasm by picking a smaller element from the Technical Draft, like dialogue tags or chapter endings. Work through those challenges to feel some progress and get back into the writing groove.
I do this, and, sure enough, my gremlin slumps out the door.
Williams is more than a desktop therapist. She hands you a blueprint to build your memoir from the ground up…in seven drafts. Maybe that sounds like a lot, but chances are you’re going to write seven drafts (at least) anyway. Why not follow a proven plan?
Williams has worked with thousands of writers as a book and writing coach (some resulting in deals with the Big-Five publishers). She also runs Rebirth Your Book and Rebirth Your Writing retreats (in various locations around the world) and is a Brevity staffer.
In Seven Drafts, she writes as if she has pulled up a seat beside you, guiding you as you create a narrative arc, capture readers’ attention and hold it until the end.
Step one is the “Vomit Draft,” which Hemingway famously referred to as the shitty first draft. “Get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled rite,” Williams writes.
Whether you’re meeting Williams for the first time in the pages of this book or you’ve encountered her at a conference, workshop, or online seminar, you’ll discover she’s quick-witted, self-deprecating, and always your cheerleader. In this first draft (whatever you wish to call it), the goal is to express all your ideas without editing, shaping, carving beautiful sentences, drawing plot lines, or pruning. The goal is to get down all the raw material so you can shape it into a story.
Next, Williams helps you work through building your story. In the Story Draft you’ll address key questions: What does the protagonist want? What’s stopping them from succeeding? What happens if the protagonist does not succeed? Williams writes:
Good memoir shares many elements with good fiction: a compelling protagonist, on an interesting journey past powerful obstacles and/or against a fully realized villain, who experiences permanent change within herself, while changing her world.
Next the Character Draft. Here, you’ll develop your protagonist into a well-rounded, intriguing character who engages readers’ imagination and compels them to read on. If you’re successful, readers will be riveted, and they’ll be compelled to turn the page to see if the protagonist succeeds.
Williams reminds us, “To write a truthful memoir, we must speculate—or ask—what happened when we were offstage. We must seek out what we don’t know.” In other words, you’ll probably need to do research. Not only do you need to have your facts straight, but it more information can help you add depth and detail to your characters and plot.
Four more steps: Technical Draft; Personal Copy Edit; Friend Read; and Editor Read. Plus, there’s a chapter on publishing.
In these 342 pages, Williams gives clear, succinct advice with diagrams and tips that work for both memoirists and novelists.
You may ask, isn’t there a Berlin wall between fiction and nonfiction?
Yes…and no. Whether you’re telling your own story or inventing one, storytelling requires plot, inciting events, drama, and resolution. A memoir can be slow and ponderous like a long poem…or it can be a page-turner that engrosses the reader that it’s hard to put down. Think about Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Tara Westover’s Educated, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.
Memoirs and fiction both rely on good storytelling: a compelling protagonist who’s on an interesting journey, facing obstacles and/or a villain, and experiencing major change.
Allison addresses fiction and nonfiction alike in writing about what you don’t know:
Writing what we want to know can be even more powerful than writing what we already know. Research beyond a novelist’s experience opens doors for interesting characters and new plot twists. For memoirists, genuinely considering a question like Why did my mother treat me like that? can allow us to resolve the past as well as creating a complex, nuanced picture of our personal history.
She also helps when the gremlins try to convince you, No one wants to read your story. Others have already written about it. Not true, Williams says. “It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the specific expression of that idea,” she writes. Every person’s story evolves into a unique quest to find meaning and understanding. That’s why you can write on a topic that others have written about, and yours is different.
Some writers say, But I want to write what I want to write the way I want to write it. I’ve done that once before. This time, I’m enlisting Williams, through her book, as my Sherpa. She’s traveled this way before and, from what I can see, knows the way.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity, and a writer and educator. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
May 13, 2022 § 2 Comments
By Brian Watson
I wasn’t expecting my mother’s question.
She knew that I was working on my memoir; I had called early in September 2021 to let her know that a publishing company had requested the manuscript—an exciting turn of events that later led to a kind rejection from the publisher.
I had given her a very rough outline of the manuscript. How I had grown up gay, how my failure to process my father’s death when I was fourteen affected me, my choice to move to Japan in 1988 in the hope of escaping the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the United States, and how my ten years in Japan unfolded me.
Can you send me a copy? I want to read it.
Imagining my mother reading about my roughshod sexual education (my first adolescence as a frightened queer kid) and emotional evolution (my second adolescence where feelings were finally allowed to join the physical) had me suddenly nervous. But I ordered a copy of the manuscript from the local print shop and mailed it off.
My stepfather called first, telling me he loved it and couldn’t wait for it to be properly published. My mother, he said, was still reading it, going more slowly.
She called at some point between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that point in the year when, by law, family drama must occur. I overstate it, of course, but the conversation included this moment:
You write very well, Brian.
Thank you, Ma.
I like it. But I have to tell you something, and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.
I had to skip over parts of it. There were things I just didn’t want to know.
That’s okay, Ma.
It reassured me to know that, as close as she and I had become over the years, we still had mutually respected boundaries.
There are some details in a grown child’s life that no parent is meant to know, especially when that grown child has the kind of early adulthood pastimes that I had.
I didn’t write a memoir to free myself, though in the process I did.
The first few pages of Melissa Febos’ Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative hit hard, and I started to vibrate, emotionally. My first adolescence, the ten or so years before I left for Japan, was an awful combination of urgent sex and fear. Fear of grief—my father died when I was fourteen—and a fear of exposure as a gay man to my family.
I had put some raw content on the page (and revised it and revised it) and it unnerved me. And it was more than my learning how to cruise other men in Manhattan at age fifteen. It was a trauma I was walking back through. I had concerns beyond the writing and its impact on me, however.
Anyone who writes the story of their individual trauma, and especially those of identities that have been historically oppressed and abused, is subject to the retraumatization by ongoing perpetrators: the patriarchal, white supremacist, colonizing nation(s) in which they must live and learn to heal.
I have taken classes with other writers of memoir, I have taught a few as well, and I hear the fear. Women, queer people like me, Black Americans, and other people of color? We were vulnerable to trauma even before we started writing. Were we about to allow others to dig deeper in our wounds?
Shortly after [Abandon Me] was published, during a post-reading Q & A, a woman stood up and asked me, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’
Another fear that I and other writers of memoirs share is blowback. Within the traumas we write about, there are often specific persons we can point to as those who victimized us or who intensified the trauma. People love to share the Anne Lamott epigram, If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better. I’m partial, myself, to one of the lines that Allison K Williams has taught me to use, I can’t wait to read your memoir, Aunt Martha.
Memoirs have the potential to burn bridges, to destroy relationships. I feel this keenly as I write.
…I wanted to be able to tell both stories. That felt more fair. Still, I felt the violation of that narration. [The other person’s] version was not my story to tell.
Telling my story is enough. Talking about my choices, the impacts of other people on me, and my ultimate successes—getting the manipulator out of my life, finding a way to be out of the closet professionally in Japan, of all places, and discovering the changes I could make that allowed me to finally fall in a truer love—are the ways my story will reach readers, the people I want to be present for.
As memoirists, we, too, speak about the unspeakable in public in the belief that this will help others. While I know that the person helped most of all is myself, part of my own healing has come from the hundreds of strangers who have written to me, claiming that I told their story, too, and that reading it showed them that it was possible to tell.
Body Work is a work of courage. And in reading it, I was imbued with a new courage myself. What a wonderful gift to the writing community.
Thank you, Melissa.
Brian Watson is currently revising and querying his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he lives in the Seattle area after years in Massachusetts, Saitama, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. His recent essays have appeared in Brevity’s online blog. His other book reviews have appeared in Hippocampus magazine. He is the author of an upcoming article on marriage equality in the US and Japan for JETs on Japan magazine and was recently interviewed for a May episode of the Second Adolescence podcast. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro. Brian lives online at iambrianwatson.com and Twitter @iambrianwatson.
May 10, 2022 § 15 Comments
I’m in a wonderful writing group, tailored to our exact needs: 20 pages, once a month, no written feedback. We are three people with writing or writing-adjacent jobs and one aerospace systems analyst. Between us are a PhD, a couple of MFAs, some BAs and Associates degrees. If you listened to our last discussion, ranging from The Yellow Wallpaper to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, you’d be hard-pressed to define anyone’s credentials from their writing or their critique. We’re all working on projects that stretch our abilities. We’re all great at some craft elements and struggling with others.
I’m one of the MFA holders. Has it forwarded my writing career? Yes. And No. (You knew that was coming.)
My MFA is in Playwriting. With all due respect to my teachers, a Playwriting degree from an English department is ridiculous. Writing for actors and directors to interpret, creating setting from a few stage directions while maintaining awareness of the budget needed to stage your play, is its own process. More importantly, your Theatre department peers will go on to form small theatre companies that produce new plays. Long-term, an English department has nothing to offer playwrights.
Fortunately, I’d already published plays and had scripts produced. Many of them. I was also teaching in the Theatre department, where I could stage my thesis script. My MFA did two things for me: my assistantship was as a journal editor, and I discovered I liked writing nonfiction. Editing under the eagle eyes of a brilliant (Theatre department) mentor was a valuable step towards my now-career as an editor and teacher. Writing nonfiction led me to the Kenyon Writers Workshop, Dinty W. Moore and Brevity.
What’s made me a better writer is critique. My first sustained critique experience, giving and receiving, was a 10-month online contest with weekly prompts. Responding to others’ work with genuinely helpful feedback, while still being likeable enough to get votes for my work, was powerful. Receiving critique taught me to recognize the Damn, I thought I could get away with that feeling that means that criticism is correct; using it will make my work better. Recognizing when critique was wrong or unsupportive thickened my skin and gave me confidence. Writing weekly (and sometimes more often) on a strict deadline for 10 months gave me 50+ chances to try out craft techniques, and a folder full of work ready to revise and submit. And I got all that for free.
A good MFA program also gives critique, deadlines, and sustained commitment. Ideally, writers graduate with a significant project ready for publication, a host of smaller pieces, the ability to give and receive critique, and the ability to write to deadline, plus colleagues and mentors who will blurb, publish and support our future work. Many of us also incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt, discover the program doesn’t support our genre, and/or that our thesis is not actually publishable without substantially more work.
Is it worth it?
Yes—if you are writing literary fiction, literary memoir, or can find a program dedicated to your genre that also focuses on publication.
No—if you write genre fiction or commercial memoir and want to make money.
Yes—if you are fully funded by the department. That’s a vote of confidence in your work; your whole experience will be better.
No—if you want to become university faculty. That career boat has sailed. Publish books instead, and the English department will come to you.
Yes—if you’re a returning student in a low-residency or nontraditional program who needs time, support and focus for a specific project you are burning to write.
No—if your feeling is “maybe I’ll write a book someday.”
Yes—if you have substantial personal funds to pay for your experience.
No—if you’re putting it on a credit card.
If you have a burning passion for your book, and the ability to pay for the program or get funding, go for it. But an MFA is not a “figure things out” place—it’s a “use this time as fully as you can for your plan” place.
Fortunately, there are plenty of less-expensive and lower-commitment places to learn to write and finish a book. Several writing centers offer year-long programs oriented to finishing a book, complete with deadlines, colleagues and critique. And of course, you can cobble together your own program from webinars, craft books and short-term workshops, ideally enlisting a couple of writer friends you’re sure you’ll still be speaking to in 3 years.
No matter what your best path is, what matters most is putting the lessons into action. Revising and resubmitting a piece that doesn’t work yet. Actively analyzing fellow students’ writing to see what’s working, what’s not, and why—and then applying those discoveries to your own work. Hiring a teacher for yourself/your group to improve your craft. An MFA won’t do you any good without doing the homework, and neither will self-study. But if you’re focused, dedicated and committed to your own work, it doesn’t matter who you pay—or if your writing credentials cost nothing at all.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Building your own MFA? Want to learn more about publishing and improve your writing craft? Learn to write a book pitch and see if yours works? Allison & Dinty are co-teaching a five-day virtual intensive next week, and two spots are still available. More info/register here.
April 19, 2022 § 7 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
Writing a book is hard enough, but for many what follows is a path to publication fraught with anxiety and concern, and for too many writers, a depressing sense of being powerless.
All that hard work, and then what? Agony and frustration?
It shouldn’t be that way, and it doesn’t have to be. Yes, the market is highly competitive, and various publishing industry practices contribute to those feelings of isolation and hopelessness, yet success is more within our grasp than some of us realize.
What is needed, is clear-headedness.
Having mentored writers all these many years, I am regularly asked variations on:
- How do I get an agent?
- Do I really need to get an agent?
- Why are agents so difficult to reach?
- Should I go with a small press?
- What about self-publishing?
All of these are good questions, and it is important to note that there are no one-size-fits-all answers to any of them.
What writers need to realize, I think, is that what happens with your book once it is written and edited is up to you, in your control. You have worked hard on your project, put in the hours, offered up the blood, sweat, and honesty, made family or work sacrifices, toiled to learn craft and polish every page, and when done, the question you SHOULD be asking yourself is:
What will make me feel that all this hard work was worth it?
The important word in that sentence is “me,” meaning, of course, you, the author. It is not up to the agents, not up to the publishing establishment, not up to some negative voice in your head, it is up to you.
If you are a writer who will not feel fulfilled without the validation of a major New York City publishing house, if you will not feel proud of yourself for the time and effort and sacrifice, then yes, you will need to suffer the slings and arrows of finding an agent, the initial rejection, reaching out to more agents, more rejection, finding an agent, and eventually the exciting but sometimes excruciating process of waiting to see if your agent can make a big sale. If that is what you need to feel validated, then that is what you need. But the decision is up to you.
If, however, publishing with a smaller publishing house, maybe a regional publisher, maybe a University Press, will make you feel as if all the work you put into your book was worth it, than that going this route is certainly success by my definition and should be by yours. Small presses have numerous advantages over their bigger rivals, especially the attention they give to individual books.
And there is no shame in self-publishing. If holding a book in your hand, written by you, carefully edited, professionally produced, showing it to your friends, selling at events, makes you proud, makes you feel as if all the hard work put in was time well spent, then that certainly is success as well.
Don’t let others dictate to you what “success” means in book publishing. Decide for yourself what makes it worth your while–and then celebrate your efforts.
Allison K Williams, a fantastic writing coach and author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book, and I will be offering a virtual Publishing and Craft Intensive next month to discuss these ideas and much more. We hope that you can join us to refine your craft, connect with fellow writers, generate new work, and explore the various paths to publishing. Details and a daily schedule breakdown can be found here:
We would love to see you there to discuss our writing, our writerly community, and a writer’s many publishing options.
More resources on the various paths to publishing:
Dinty W. Moore is author of the memoirs Between Panic & Desire and To Hell With It, and the writing guides Crafting the Personal Essay and The Mindful Writer, among other books. He has published essays and stories in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. He edits Brevity magazine.
April 14, 2022 § 5 Comments
By Lynn Haraldson
A few months ago, my partner and I were sitting at the workbench in his garage, sharing a beer and talking about nothing in particular, when a 1970s Cheap Trick song, “Voices,” came on the radio. I was humming along until, halfway through, a lyric stopped me cold. I looked over at the man I’ve been with for nine years—now paging through a Polaris catalog—and thought, Oh no! I’m in love with someone else!
In the many years since my husband died, I’ve earned a Ph.D. in grief. When I started writing a memoir a few years ago about my experiences in the aftermath of his death, I knew I couldn’t write from a detached place. I planned ahead and established supports—my therapist on speed dial, Ted Lasso on the DVR— for those times when grief got overwhelming.
But it wasn’t grief that prompted a writing timeout. “Voices” made me realize that—while I’d never stopped loving my husband—I’d fallen in love with him again, on the page. And that, I decided, was a problem.
Sometime during the third or fourth round of edits, when I went deeper into my past in search of the tiniest details, the ones that prick the heart and make a scene more intimate, I’d added more physical details about my husband’s body, and the ways and times we danced, laughed, slept, showered, and made love. It was often emotionally difficult to write, as I expected it would be. It also reignited feelings I haven’t felt for him in a very long time.
I thought if I listened to “Voices” few more times, the feeling would go away, like when you rub a sore muscle and it relaxes. I found the video on YouTube, but as I sang along, the harder seventeen-year-old Me fell for the farmer boy who would become my husband.
I shouldn’t feel this way! I told myself, even though it was the same phrase that—for decades after his death—kept me from grieving at all, or at least grieving productively, openly, and honestly.
Guilt tagged along, and I felt like I was cheating on both my partner and my memoir. How could I stay true to my partner and to my central theme of normalizing grief, without saccharine, starry-eyed in-loveness screwing everything up?
I needed supports beyond Ted and my therapist. First, I opened my dog-eared copy of Hope Edelman’s The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Grief:
This is how the AfterGrief tends to show up…A random site or sound or smell pushes a memory up to the surface, and time does it’s funky little twitch. The future pulls back and the distant past rushes up close, both compressing into the present. Then is now and now is then, and later ceases to exist. The images are dazzling in their clarity. If I’d known they were coming today, I might have planned better.
Ah…so instead of identifying the song as a sensory trigger and letting it be what it was, I immediately jumped to, “This is bad!” OK, got it!
I went to Megan Devine’s website, Refuge in Grief: “Beauty doesn’t so much fix anything as it creates more space in your heart.”
Had I learned so much about grief that I forgot how it intersects with love? Love is beauty! I took a deep breath and indulged the in love, and let it sit in my heart in all its bubblegum gooiness. It was…lovely. Love and grief intertwined like helixes, rotating in unison, one strand no less than the other.
After addressing the what and why of this love feeling, I addressed my memoir as a writer. I opened Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book and reread “Memoir: Character” to remind myself not to turn my late husband into a “Mary Sue”—a too-amazing, too-special character, too good to be true. To make my late husband—and our relationship—real for readers, I must include—along with love—moments of vulnerability and conflict, to show, rather than tell, the story of our life together in all its messy stickiness.
I could do that.
Just when I thought I’d earned that Ph.D in grief, I had to relearn that feelings aren’t bad guys. If I feel guilty or tell myself to “get over” a feeling, then it’s me, not my feelings, creating the problem. Feelings—the good and the ugly—give authenticity to writing. Blame, guilt, and “shouldn’ts” contribute nothing. In the next draft, I faced my feelings, and—after a generous break and offering kindness to my experience—let my words do the rest.
P.S. When I told my partner I was in love with my late husband, he hugged me and said, “Yeah, I’ve known that since I met you.” Hunh…
Lynn Haraldson is a writer from rural western Pennsylvania. Her memoir, An Obesity of Grief, is currently in the hands of the query gods. She is a writing mentor at State Correction Institution – Pine Grove and is the editor of the inmate-written newsletter The Grove. She writes at LynnHaraldson.com and can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @ZenBagLady.
February 24, 2022 § 30 Comments
Last month I responded to 113 essays and book beginnings. A fraction of what a literary magazine might see in submissions; a lot for me to comment on. Nobody got a form rejection, because the pages were for a webinar—What’s Wrong with this Work: Turning Rejections into Publications—and the learning was the point. The authors listed their previous rejections from literary magazines, mass media, websites and agents, as many as 35 rejections for a single essay.
I hadn’t expected so many submissions. About 50 had arrived, and I’d been on a roll, picking pieces to edit live while screen-sharing during the webinar, and thought “Sure, I can do one comment on everyone!” Then the coordinator sent a reminder email. I wasn’t publicly committed to 113 responses—officially, I needed 2-5 volunteers—but I’m glad I plowed through them all, because I needed to know this and so do you:
It’s probably not your writing.
By “your writing” I mean sentence-level prose. The ability to frame a paragraph, write a rounded character, show setting and imply backstory. Almost every essay was well-written, from competently to marvelously. I only told two writers: “Consider working with a writing group or taking a class to improve your craft—your story is bigger than your ability to tell it right now.”
So why were they getting rejected? For that matter, why are you? And what can you do about it?
Many well-written pieces made a good point but didn’t say anything new. Writing about the pandemic, cancer, addiction, aging parents or cultural racism? Your angle must be something we haven’t heard many times before—and/or your writing must be incredibly moving or incredibly funny. The world doesn’t want another “sorry about being a white lady” piece. Sorry.
For memoirs, most opening pages lacked cultural relevance. How does your story intersect with the larger world now? What makes your book more than a family album?
Fix this: Read widely in the publication you want to be in and in your genre. What’s already being talked about? How can you add to the conversation? Make your fresh angle or new insights clear from the first page.
Many essays with strong concepts lacked a dramatic arc. The stakes weren’t clear. A series of observations showed another person’s character, or the narrator retold past events without a clear choice in the present. “Slice of life” pieces portrayed a particular family or group, but read as charming collections of characters rather than a personal journey for anyone.
Fix this: Ask of your essay, “What’s my state at the beginning? What’s my state at the end? What made me change and where in the essay does that moment of realization happen?” If you can’t put your finger on a sentence showing change, you don’t have a story.
Style of Writing/Where It Was Submitted
Literary essays had been rejected by mass media. Essays with the style and tone of mass media had been rejected from literary magazines. I could see why the authors were confused—they had strong writing and great stories! But they were trying to wear a ballgown to change the oil. Great dress, wrong place.
Fix this: Pick three recent pieces from your chosen publication. Analyze paragraph by paragraph. Where is the premise established? What’s an active scene and what’s imagery or reflection? Does the writer give advice, tell personal anecdotes, reference needed cultural change? That’s mass media. Crying at the end but you’re not sure why? Literary all the way. Now analyze your own work: do you see similar components to the published pieces?
When too many names, places or events show up in the first few paragraphs, the reader gets confused before they get oriented. They’re trying to track who or what will be important, and they don’t yet have the background to care about anyone.
Fix this: Count the nouns. Seriously. People, places, things. How many concrete things are in your opening? If there are more than three proper nouns, three objects or one location, make sure you have a specific reason to put them there…and that it’s working.
Opening with Death
I’ve seen many memoirs open with a loved one’s death, then flashback to fill in the story. But we don’t know why the person you’re mourning matters! You’re asking the reader to attend a stranger’s funeral and fully empathize with the chief mourner.
Fix this: The death was a big event…but this is still your story. Where does your journey begin? Start there.
Not many magazines take essays over 5000 words, and not many readers want to soldier through one. Most mass media essays are 900-2000 words, with the sweet spot around 1500. Most literary magazines take work up to about 25 double-spaced pages. Over 5000 words is long for personal essay that’s not deeply researched or culturally situated, and you’ll probably need previous publication credits in big-name, similar journals, or even a shorter piece in the same magazine.
Fix this: If your story’s big, make a choice: either tell sections of it in a couple of shorter essays; or write the whole book.
Rejection is often not “bad writing.” Often, the submission is a mismatch with the venue, the opening is muddy or the overall point isn’t clear, or someone’s narrating their family album. You can fix this. Why not pick your favorite piece without a home, and fix it now?
Want more of Allison’s writing advice? Join the upcoming webinar Writing Memoir for YA and Middle Grade, with tips and techniques for learning the market, writing a captivating memoir, and getting published.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
January 13, 2022 § 18 Comments
For editors, rejection is often a gut-level process: they’ve edited this journal for 5, 10, 15 years; they know instinctively if a piece doesn’t fit. For writers, rejection sucks. No matter how much we know that rejection is not feedback, we take it to heart. Question our worth. Wonder if we’ll ever write anything publishable. Rejection’s sting is the price we pay for the occasional, glorious feeling of acceptance—that we can’t predict or control.
But we can control our work. Often, a piece that’s been rejected multiple times has an identifiable problem. Take a look at your orphan essay, book or pitch. One of these issues might apply:
You’re submitting to the wrong outlet. The lowest bar to clear. Editor after editor has told me that half—half!—of what they receive is “wrong.” Not necessarily poorly written, but sent to the wrong place. A sweet personal essay sent to bitterly satirical McSweeney’s. A pitch about wolverine conservation sent to Glamour. Here at Brevity, we receive many submissions over 750 words, some of them thousands of words over. Double-check the guidelines and know the venue.
You’re submitting far above your skill level. Does our writing belong in the publication we admire? It’s hard to judge our own work, so judge theirs. Ideally, you’re already reading that press’s books, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Take a look at your own recent work. Are you actively or instinctively using those same (or similar) tools? This can be a sign you’re reaching for the right level.
The piece starts too early. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter situate the reader clearly in the story? Or is it backstory, set-up, or explanation? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph. For a book, cut the first 50 pages—then figure out what needs to be added back.
The piece ends too late. About half the essays I edit can cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper “button” to feel satisfyingly finished. Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have worked on that element of our craft.
Does your piece end with a summary, explanation, justification or excuse? Summarizing and explaining tell the reader, I’d better spell it out 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 usher the reader into a larger image, gently enfold them in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. More on endings here.
There’s too much filtering language.
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 filtering puts the reader more in the emotion of the scene. They can feel for us, instead of being told what we felt. Editing out most filtering language will immediately improve your work and increase your chances of acceptance.
Not making the abstract concrete. Often, our work deals with higher-level concepts, and it should! But are you embodying those concepts in concrete situations or action? If you grew up in poverty, are you telling how crappy that felt, how the other kids weren’t kind…or making “poverty” visible?
We bought mac and cheese from the dollar store and made it with water instead of milk.
Read your work. Can you make abstract concepts concrete?
No space for the reader. Explaining, filtering, excess set-up and wrap-up are all the same problem: we’re worried 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. Make the reader a detective. Let them put clues together, notice dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guess a character’s thoughts from their gestures. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—meet them on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.
Seeing what’s wrong in our own work is hard. Be methodical in your later drafts. Identify what great writers are doing and try those techniques. Make checklists of specific elements to fix, change, and write better next time. Rejection’s hard, but it’s not forever—and the more we work to anticipate and fix problems in our writing before submission, the more likely we’ll be able to send our words into the world.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tired of rejection? Join her and Creative Nonfiction magazine for What’s Wrong with this Work? Turning Rejections into Publications January 19th (yes there’s a recording). Register here.