Again. Still.

March 31, 2020 § 30 Comments

We woke up and everything had been different for some time now. Maybe we finally slept through the night. Or embraced waking up early, wired without caffeine. Maybe the bleak haze had become familiar, waiting for something to feel like feeling again. Maybe a call came—your friend is dying. Or, I think we should take a break. Or a text, WE WOULD LIKE TO INFORM YOU THAT PUBLIC MOVEMENT RESTRICTION HAS BEEN IMPOSED.

Maybe we woke to the memory of weeks ago, some faraway country tracking their citizens, an alarmist friend stockpiling taco mix, our partner still warm-eyed and cuddly. All we want is to go back to sleep, back in time, to the moment before the pandemic, the break-up, that moment of sweet unknowing, when everything was still OK.

How can we write? How can we read?

How can we possibly address the page with our life, or our characters’ lives, so petty and small in the face of tragedy? How can what we do matter in the midst of the unchangeable?

We search online—everyone else feels this way. The internet is a giant support group. We are still falling. We are all caged with the family we want to love, or alone in a room we used to love. We click angry-sad-angry-sad, wondering why gallows humor isn’t funny anymore. Fear comes in waves—numbers on a graph, an admired person now sick, now dead, the disgust and despair of watching our leaders flail.

We go through the motions. My students need an anchor. My child must be fed. If I meet this deadline I might get paid.

Neighbors whose politics disheartened us now make us rage. We try to forgive, to trust in karma, that something bigger than ourselves is in charge, that there is still a plan…isn’t there?

My best friend dies suddenly, a year ago today, the last day of AWP. The doctor tells me over the phone she is not comfortable, she is in pain. He takes my word that I have power of attorney, that she is a DNR, and I sing poorly through the phone held at her ear, hoping somewhere inside she hears me say goodbye. I fly across the country to clean out her house, reconcile with her estranged sister, hug distant friends in person for the first time. We gather around a garbage can, throw away a thousand photographs, making fun of old hairstyles and appreciating my friend’s artistic eye. We resurrect her hard drive and read her work; re-home her elderly cats. I take home her phone and try to crack it. I write about her. The bottom of the world has still dropped out, but words are a bucket in which I can carry water. Words are an axe with which I can chop wood. Each time I touch a page she edited, I touch my old world, the world in which she is also alive and reading my words. The words are a lifeline from a better past. The words are the seed of a pearl.

We guard our families, while others endanger us. Our ex-lover shows up to get the jacket we hoped he’d forgotten. We wash our hands a hundred times. After a few weeks, the essay or the book or the poem we’ve put aside goes from horrifyingly irrelevant to merely unappetizing. Our calendar clears, disappointment somehow better than hope. We sit down again. Five minutes, can you do five minutes? We tinker. We find the rhythm and lose it. We struggle to say something, anything, on the page. We are not just artists but craftsmen, and craftsmen go to work. We spend our lives sharpening our tools, and they are not just for fine days. Our tools—our words—matter not just for how we use them when all is well, but how we use them to shore up the levee when the waters rise. The people whose stories need sharing, who are not craftsmen enough to write their own, who need to hear our story to know theirs is not singular, still need us. Our words connect them from a better past to a seed of hope, string them a lifeline to the future. Our words say, one day there will be a world again, a world in which stories matter. Our words say, our stories matter still.

When my friend was alive, she told me a parable.

The novice asks the master, “What does one do before enlightenment?”

The master replies, “Chop wood. Carry water.”

The novice asks, “What, then, does one do after enlightenment?”

“Chop wood. Carry water.”

We are awake in a new world, after the thing has come to pass. It is our quiet salvation, to show up to the page and insist our words still matter. To weave a slender thread of understanding and possibility, not only in reaction to tragedy, but in recognition of the stories still to tell and be told. To salve the need for human connection, more dangerous and more precious than we have ever known. Stories are our valuable labor, reminding us that we exist independent of our grief and fear. Reminding us the world matters. Reminding our readers they matter. Saying, I too chop wood. I too carry water.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

This is an update of a November 2016 post.

How To Generate Content

March 19, 2020 § 27 Comments

“Start a blog!” agents say. “Write a newsletter!” announce publishers. “You’ll build readership and be more attractive to agents and publishers!”

But what the heck do you put in it? Hey, I got rejected again by the same magazine?

Yes.

Absolutely.

(I do.)

The daily grind of your writing life is indeed fodder for bulletins every week or two. More than once a week gets annoying; less than once a month and people forget who you are and unsubscribe. Try to share your work the same time and day, so that people have a subconscious expectation of reading you, say, Tuesday mornings.

I have to write something every week? What if it’s not good? What if it’s not a diamond-sharp, multiply-revised presentation of my Best Thoughts Ever?

And a blog post or email newsletter is not a lengthy, many-drafted essay. In fact, the best content is:

Brief,

Personal, and

Useful

Be brief.

Chances are you’re not the only thing they’re reading that day. They want to be provoked, or made to laugh, or learn something, briefly.

Newsletters max out around 600 words; under 300 is better. Blog posts’ sweet spot is 600-800 words. Ideally, write the amount you can write, polish, and post in 60 minutes or less. At first, that may be 200-300 words. Once you get a rhythm down, you’ll be able to get closer to your target—or turn out shorter pieces in less time.

Brevity helps you write more often, using your available time. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t have an hour—feel good that you got out any amount of words to share. Remember that the medium is the message: readers don’t expect literary genius in an email. Write your best, but don’t worry about perfection.

Get personal.

Whatever you do, make it yours.

Blogger Penelope Trunk‘s break-out fame came from live-tweeting her miscarriage during a business meeting, shattering the image of work-life balance. She personally attacked a guy on Twitter who criticized her parenting, and “I Hate David Dellifield. The One From Ada, Ohio” is still one of the most popular posts on her site. Some days, I read Penelope and think, “She’s a loon!” Other days I think, “Wow, I’m glad she’s brave enough to write this.” I’m not showing up to her blog for pure information, I’m reading because I’m fascinated by her.

If your news today is, “I got rejected by the same magazine again,” write that. Write about how you made 100 copies of the rejection, folded paper airplanes, wrote “Never give up!” on the wings, and flew them into the playground from the elementary school roof. Or how you dreamed about doing that. Or how you added another hatchmark on the bare plaster of your crumbling bathroom wall, how every day you sit on the toilet and count rejections like a prisoner counting days. No matter which of those is closest to your own experience, someone reading will gasp in shock and recognition and say, “Me too!” And then they will read you again next week.

Be truly useful.

I was speaking with another retreat leader (If you’re an academic working on breaking through writing blocks, check out Inkwell Retreats, this woman is ah-mazing). We discussed how conference speaking, online courses, and blog posts could intrigue and connect with potential retreat guests. The big question: How much should we “give away”? If people could take a video course at home, or read a craft blog for free, would they still come to an expensive retreat or day-long workshop?

What I (rather indelicately) said: People watch porn for different reasons than they hire a sex worker. “In-person and focused on me” and “conference session” and “watching a video at home” are all different experiences.

Give away the secret recipe. Genuine interest in the well-being of your readers means sharing truly useful, specific information. The more you show you care about your readers, the more engaging you become. Karmically, this is an excellent thing. Cravenly, generosity makes you look powerful. That person has so many resources she can just give them away! Passing on information shows you as connected; a visible part of the writing world.

Trust that there is enough: Enough money, enough readers, enough students, enough to go around. Re-posting a prime contest or sharing a submission opportunity doesn’t lessen your own chances. Instead, it builds your authority as a source. (Check out Erika Dreifus’s excellent newsletters full of writing opportunities.)

Generating content is not an immediate return. Musician Amanda Palmer (artistic nudity at link may be NSFW) did a lot of free YouTube concerts before running the first million-dollar Kickstarter. Cheryl Strayed wrote a lot of Dear Sugar columns for free before Wild broke out.

Blogs and newsletters make us our own gatekeepers. We slowly build our reputations and our readership. Start small. Take on only as much commitment as you can regularly deliver. Respond to comments. Engage with all four of your readers—they’ll bring friends.

Stay brief. Get personal. Be useful.

Share.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. She offers travel stories and writing tips on Instagram.

No One Wants to Steal Your Book

March 5, 2020 § 7 Comments

The cheeseburgers are your book

You may have heard from a beginning writer, “What if an agent steals my idea?” Or “What if a publisher prints my book and sells it without paying me?” Or “What if someone pirates my e-book?”

You may yourself have wondered, why is it customary not to copyright one’s work before beginning the submission process? Isn’t registering with the Library of Congress protection for writers? Doesn’t that little circle-c scare off plagiarists and pirates?

Not especially.

In fact, putting the copyright symbol on a manuscript submitted to an agent or publisher is the mark of an amateur. While an agent isn’t going to turn down a fantastic book because the author jumped the gun on copyright, it is a tiny indicator that “This author may have misconceptions about the publishing industry and I will have to educate them as well as trying to sell their book. They will need more of my time than a savvier author might.”

In North America and Europe (and most other countries), all artistic work is copyrighted from the moment it’s created in a fixed form. When you write it in a notebook, or type it into a Word doc, you establish ownership of your creation. What registering copyright does is allow you to sue for damages. Until your work is actually published (at which point copyright will be registered with the publisher’s help, or by you as an indie author), or unless you are an author at the Stephen-King-Nora-Roberts level, there aren’t many damages to sue for.

Actual piracycopy-pasting and repackaging the text of a book and selling it as your ownhappens rarely. It happens primarily in China, India and Egypt, markets with avid readers and low per-capita incomes. Foreign pirates do not care about your registered copyright, and you will not be able to find and sue them. If you discover a photocopy of your novel in a Cairo souk, your best bet is to figure out how to reach those fans and sell them something else (or at least get an Amazon review!). In North America, most piracy happens with textbooks and in category romance, and pirated copies show up after the book is published. If you’re writing one of those genres, by all means do more research, and learn how to file a copyright infringement claim with Amazon. But for memoirists and most fiction writers, our enemy will be not piracy but obscurity.

What if someone in my writing group steals my idea?

Remember that party you went to, and that person came up and said, “I have a great idea for a book! You write it and we’ll split the money!” Remember how ridiculous it was that they had absolutely no conception that writing a book is difficult and time-consuming and puking out ideas is the easy part?

It’s not possible to copyright an idea, and ideas are rarely original. Execution is what matters. The level of labor, time and expense needed to rewrite someone else’s book is unlikely to be taken on by anyone good enough to actually do it. (with the notable exceptions of Shakespeare and Stephen Sondheim). Writers able to skillfully repurpose the plot of a stolen manuscript already have their own books to try and sell, and usually, their pride.

What if I query an agent and they take my idea and give it to another writer?

Legitimate agents receive far too many submissions alreadyif they like your idea but want a different take or another writing style, chances are very good they have already received another submission doing exactly that. They may well sell a book that sounds a lot like yours; they almost certainly didn’t need to steal it.

What if a publisher steals my book?

Legitimate publishers don’t make enough money off books from debut authors to bother stealing a debut book. Just like agents, they already got six versions of that story, and they picked the one they liked best. Even scam publishers don’t make money by stealing booksthey profit by charging authors to publish. If they steal your book, who’s going to pay them?

Do your research. As you go through the submissions process, this reputable webpage from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America covers common scams (including specific, named agencies and publishers to watch out for) and Victoria Strauss has guidelines to finding a legit agent. I strongly recommend reading the archives of Writer Beware Blog for common scams and shady practices, as well as names of predatory publishers and fake agents.

Our greatest protection as unpublished writers is that nobody wants to steal our work. Yes, that sounds a little sad. But just as “worth publishing” is not “worth stealing,” so too does “not worth stealing” not mean “worthless.” Our second greatest protection is our own voice. What makes our work worth an agent’s time, a publisher’s investment, and a reader’s money, is what we bring to the page, beyond an idea or even a particular plot. West Side Story “stole” Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet “stole” Romeus and Juliet. But the transformation of ideas from one author to another resulted each time in something unique…and words so distinct, they are impossible to steal.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She hosts the Rebirth Your Book full-manuscript writing retreats, and hopes to see you in Italy this fall or India next spring.

Playlist

March 3, 2020 § 4 Comments

Faded vintage photo of jukeboxSome days it’s easy, up with the sun, shower and go. Latte, mini-quiche, table by the window, headphones in—

Bleed it out dig it deeper just to throw it away

—Linkin Park blotting out the buzz of the coffee shop, focus view on the Word doc, 5 pages of re-typing, 5 pages of edits, 5 pages new, and bam! it’s done. Some days it’s harder, I needed the sleep, I needed to correct someone on the internet, the first line of “Bleed It Out” a phantom sound in my ears while Twitter or a phone game sucked me into the quicksand of my bed.

Four o’clock.

Really? It took you until four o’clock to leave the house? What the hell kind of lazy overprivileged white-lady shit is this?

Surf the internet another hour, no really, I’m working. I’m ‘reading for writing,’ that’s what my timekeeper app says. Call a friend, sort it out, headset in, it’s time.

—bleed it out dig it deeper just to throw it away

The playlist ticks off the pages. Fifteen minutes to Goldfrapp. Thirty to Katy Perry. Some days I make it all the way down to The Decemberists at the two-hour mark, on a really good day, Philip Glass at almost three. But it’s always the second song that drives the need to start, is driven by the need to start (the first song is the get-your-pages-sorted, prop-them-on-a-book, did-you-wash-your-hands time, three minutes and thirty-one seconds of countdown, T-minus creativity).

—bleed it out dig it deeper just to throw it away—

The coffee shop closes early. Or there’s a cutely named singer-songwriter couple with guitars and too much amp. Or dudes in suits whose business is not important enough to take to the office, but important enough for everyone to hear. Or I’m visiting and my mother comes home, the sound of the automatic garage door like a starting pistol, sending me to my room in a mad rush, minus earbuds, minus power cord, on edge until the back door opens and I can call out, “Welcome home I love you I can’t talk I’m writing,” and slam my own door like the sullen teen I was, I am still.

I do not know what I would do with children. Abuse them, probably. Not with the wire hanger or the cigarette, but with coldness and silence and preoccupation, that’s a lovely crayon drawing, now shut up, dear God, shut up, I’m writing!

—bleed it out dig it deeper just to throw it away—

This is the glass box of selfishness, of being useless to the world on the (monumentally arrogant!) excuse that I will make something that matters, I will write better, I will write something worth solitude and exclusion.

I will.

—Yeah here we go for the hundredth time, hand grenade pins in every line—

I will.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Show Me The Money (Or Not)

February 27, 2020 § 6 Comments

Clearly not writers.

Finding out a literary journal’s taste is easy. Their website says right up front whether they want edgy flash fiction, genre-crossing lyric essays or formal poems. If they accept work via Submittable, their own website, or paper mail with a SASE. It’s easy to buy copies or subscribe to see if our work is “a good fit.” Easy to donate to support their mission.

What’s often harder to find: Do they pay?

Sometimes it’s a long slog through the journal’s website, Duotrope or Who Pays Writers?. Sometimes I email the editors. Mostly, if I have to ask, they don’t.

Why so coy, journals? If you’re a contributor/reader-supported market, own it. If you offer a $10 honorarium, own it. But when literary publications avoid giving this information up front, they are—however unintentionally—contributing to the idea that writers’ work is valueless. That we should be glad just to be in print. That questioning the availability of cash compensation is somehow indelicate.

Some magazines do confront payment head on:

Literary Mama is not currently a paying market. We are all volunteers: editors, writers, visual artists, and editorial assistants. With the publication of each issue, we make a concerted effort to promote the work of our contributors via Facebook, Twitter, and our newsletter.

Others dodge even direct questions:

Thanks so much for your inquiry. The details of author compensation will be communicated directly with the [Redacted] anthology’s accepted authors.

Really? Because when I apply for a position, I’d like to know if I’m volunteering. Don’t get me wrong—volunteering is great. Finding a cause you care about enough to donate time and energy feels terrific. But charities let us choose.

It’s not wrong not to pay. As I wrote here two weeks ago, writers need “stuff”—prestige, resume credit, the experience of working with an editor. Some magazines pay on principle; some find an honorarium increases submissions. Brevity’s own Dinty W. Moore writes:

Well, it is only recently—about [five] years back—that we were able to land in a financial position where we could pay writers, so in some ways it still feels like we are bragging. But it does feel good to be offering payment, as small as it is ($45 per flash essay).

We are an online-only journal, so having payments to authors has helped to lend us legitimacy…I think online journals are generally more respected now, but it wasn’t always so.

I wouldn’t say there was a radical shift in quality once we began to pay, but I have noticed a small but measurable uptick… Some authors who did not previously submit are starting to show up in our inbox.

Another literary journal editor had a different experience:

We aim to showcase emerging artists’ work while making sure they are compensated fairly, and that is what we’re striving for as we work hard to build a business model that allows us to do that.

…what we’re offering at this time is the opportunity of publication and ongoing promotion of their work to our community. We’re also not engaging in any kind of commercial exploitation of the artists’ work. The magazine is freely available and we do not have any advertising revenue, and all of our editors are volunteering their time and expertise…we haven’t seen anyone ask outright if we are going to pay them. In our experience most people just submit hoping to be published.

We’ve been fortunate to receive a good amount of submissions of great quality, despite not mentioning any compensation policy.

One might argue that “making sure they are compensated fairly” is at odds with “not mentioning any compensation policy.” Since that interview, the journal has gone dark; lacking a budget to pay authors can be a sign of other challenges.

Every journal has the right to choose their payment policy. Maybe they want to pay in the future; maybe it will always be for publication credit or literary community. But when a magazine elides compensation policy or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern. It becomes another subtle signpost: You shouldn’t be in this for the money. Not actively sharing the information suggests we shouldn’t care. As if wanting to know about pay is money-grubbing or besmirching the purity of literature.

It’s not.

It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a ‘literary’ writer—to want to be paid. Before “amateur” meant “unskilled,” it meant “one pursuing an occupation for the love of doing it.” Artists often move between amateur and professional work, choosing some projects for cash, others for prestige or creative challenges

I love writing. I love it a lot. And I would write whether I got paid or not. But I can’t light my home with the warm glow of achievement, and making writing my job lets me spend more time improving my work. For many writers, whether or not a journal pays is a primary consideration. Even in the small dollar amounts associated with literary publication, payment feels good.

Resume credits are valuable. Publication is valuable. Some non-paying magazines are prestigious journals that authors are proud to be a part of. Some are entry-level markets where publication alone is still genuinely a reward for emerging writers. But all of them need to be open about whether they are asking us to work for free.

We regret we are unable to offer an honorarium.

Contributors receive two copies of the issue in which they appear.

Money+Literary Magazine=HAHAHAHA

Sometimes we’re writing for money. Sometimes we aren’t. Journal editors, please give us the dignity of trusting our choice—and the honesty of making your policy clear.

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*A version of this piece originally appeared on The Review Review, which appears to be changing ownership and updating their website.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner‘s blog, and on radio programs The Moth and Snap Judgement. Some of them paid her.

The Siren Lure of Travel Writing

February 25, 2020 § 18 Comments

“You travel all the time, why don’t you write about it?”

I get asked that a lot. Last year I spent time in the Netherlands, Italy, Vietnam (twice), China, Cambodia, Thailand, Costa Rica, France and Canada, plus Utah, Arkansas, Oregon, Michigan, Louisiana, New York (city and state), Florida and Pennsylvania; and I am a writer.

Why am I not a travel writer?

Sure, I share my experiences on the Brevity blog, and write travel mini-essays on Instagram, but I don’t write travel articles for mass media or contribute to guidebooks.

I’ve thought about it—in 2015-2016, I explored writing travel full-time, or even part-time, thinking it might help finance some of my trips. I paid a successful travel writer to coach me on pitching articles to newspapers and magazines. I made lists of places to pitch and what story and angle for each. I read airplane magazines and scoured travel websites. I attended the annual New York Times Travel Show on a media badge and collected business cards from every tourism board, tour agency, and PR team representing countries I’d like to visit. (The first day I woke up with total laryngitis and carried an index card reading HELLO I AM ALLISON FROM DUBAI PLEASE TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR COUNTRY/REGION/ORGANIZATION.)

After all that research, I didn’t sell any travel articles. I didn’t even pitch any travel articles. I’d arrive in a new location, realize I was there to work another job, and spend my day off resting, rather than hitting up Six Michigan Wineries You Must Visit or Exploring Tuscany In October. On vacation trips I dutifully photographed dinner plates and took notes at key sites, then got home and realized 1) I didn’t have time to individually pitch 20 publications to hopefully sell two articles, and 2) I needed $1500 in camera equipment, time and photography training.

Travel writing looks easy and glamorous, but competition is vigorous, and the prevalence of influencers sharing pretty pictures in exchange for free trips has further devalued the professional travel writer. It takes talent, skill and hard work to build an Insta-career, but social media further dilutes the market for magazine/newspaper travel readers.

Travel writers mostly fall in three categories:

  • Staff writers are on salary at single media outlets and their destinations are often assigned to them. They write big, splashy pieces, often over 2000 words. Staff photographers take the pictures, or the magazine purchases stock photos or is provided with photos from tourism boards, etc. Staff writers build their resumes with freelance clips and often work in entry-level positions before being assigned the travel beat.
  • Freelancers write for multiple outlets, and are paid per word. Thirty years ago, this was about $1/word. Now, many outlets pay 1-50 cents/word, or $50-200 per article, or even clicks-per-reader (usually a worse deal than upfront pay). Freelancers pitch story ideas and are commissioned to write specific articles. They often take their own photos.
  • Bloggers/influencers are not technically “travel writers.” They market themselves and their lifestyle as it takes place in exotic locations. They are physically attractive or can work their look, and take terrific photos or have an InstaHusband to snap them. Influencers spend as much time understanding algorithms and hashtags, editing photos and learning what their readers click on as they do actually traveling.

All three types go on press trips for new travel locations or experiences, or “fam” trips to familiarize with specific destinations. However, the biggest and most prestigious venues often require that writers pay for everything they get. In fact, the New York Times requires writers to have not received any travel freebies for several years, even if unrelated to the current story. Staff writers get reimbursed. Bloggers take freebies. Freelancers pay travel expenses upfront, then hope to sell enough stories to pay for the trip. At $150 each, that’s a lot of articles to get to Fiji and back. Sure, that travel is a tax deduction…but only if you show profit at the end of the year. The IRS doesn’t allow expenses for “hobbies.”*

Still want to write travel?

  • Read this Curiosity Magazine article, a comprehensive look at travel writing as a profession.
  • Learn to pitch. Read about it, or pay someone to teach you. Non-travel outlets like Narratively, most Op-Ed sections, and Gay Mag also commission essays from pitches. Pitching teaches you how to talk about everything else you write, too.
  • Pick and research one kind of travel. If you’re financially comfortable, go for the luxury spa beat and read a year’s worth of Condé Nast Traveler. If you’re a cheap traveler, read Lonely Planet. If you like quirky-but-sophisticated, read Afar.
  • Take better photos. Learn about angles, lighting, and framing. Get a real camera. Learn Lightroom or Photoshop.
  • Start with FOB. Front-Of-Book are short blurbs about hot new experiences and destinations, found in the first pages of magazines. FOB is easier to write and for newbies to break into.

Like romance novels, self-publishing, and writing an entire book, travel writing is much harder than it looks. But it’s absolutely possible to build a successful travel-writing career, and those skills will serve the rest of your writing, too. Writing travel means looking for the story every day, asking more questions, interacting with more people and trying new experiences—all of which make a better trip, whether or not your vacation becomes a story to sell.

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*Hobby vs business on Schedule C filings is more complicated than that, but that’s the gist. Lmk in comments if you really want to know more about deducting writing expenses and I’ll write another blog about that.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Travel with her to Tuscany in October, and finish your book along the way! Or follow her on Instagram for vicarious travel delights and writing adventures.

Writing with Power(Point)

February 20, 2020 § 9 Comments

A vacuum on a beige carpet, picking up shiny confetti“Hey, let’s go make PowerPoint slides!” said nobody ever. We all became writers to escape the dreary corporate world, right? We’re not wearing ties or pantyhose, we show up on our own schedule, and we certainly don’t make “presentations.”

Unless part of our writing is…teaching. Or giving a TedTalk about our process or a PechaKucha about the topic of our book. Or leading a workshop. Or speaking at conferences. Yes, sadly, there are many opportunities for writers to embrace slides. But just as social media can make us better writers, creating slides lets us practice strong imagery, writing craft, and (of course!) brevity.

After five years of speaking, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks for engaging, informative slides—and writing better prose, too.

Get a good template. Most pre-loaded slide themes are aggressively corporate, with blue gradient triangles and racing stripes galore. Free presentation templates on Canva, Graphic Mama and SlideCarnival include fun, creative themes that still look sleek and professional.

When you’re writing, make sure you’re reading. How are books and essays you admire structured? Can you experiment with someone else’s and your own content? Would a hermit crab or braided essay “template” suit the material you’re working with? Very often, the exercise of shaping our words into a fixed form illuminates connections and highlights important moments.

Show OR Tell. Memoirists can “tell” a bit more than novelists, because the writer’s retrospective voice can express deeper realizations from the actions the past self takes. As Sue Silverman teaches, the “voice of experience” tells the story, and the “voice of innocence” lives it in the past. We still need to show key scenes and allow the reader to experience what we felt at the time, but we can give context and share what it all means to us now.

With slides, avoid reading the text on a slide. Most of your audience can read faster than you can speak, so let them get the gist while you share the larger meaning of your key concepts, and “show” the application and purpose of what you’re teaching with vivid, specific stories. Likewise, go for a fun or unique photo over one that purely illustrates what you’re talking about. I can tell a roomful of writers “Clean up your manuscript with a good copy-edit because typos are distracting to the reader,” but the vacuum sucking up glitter shows that idea more than a marked-up page. We’d all be distracted by glitter on the carpet; we can imagine typos as confetti strewn over our manuscript. Ideas sink in better when the associated image conveys a feeling.

Which brings us back to showing in our writing: when expressing an abstract concept, or a state of being, or family history, or a relationship, use a concrete image:

My aunt used to sit on the blue velour couch and re-sew her underwear for her daughters.

—strong situation, right? But let me expand in an unexpected direction:

We weren’t poor.

Instead, the men in the family controlled the money, and the women made do. Now we have an image, plus the immediate pity, plus outrage at the next discovery. A memorable and emotion-evoking detail on which to build a scene. For great scenes, explore your memory; for great images, check out stock photo sites like Pixabay and Unsplash.

Keep it tight. Here at Brevity, we love your 750-words-or-less essays. But even a 120,000-word fantasy novel or historical fiction should have no wasted words.

In your slides, evaluate each one: do you need it to express a point? Does it follow logically from the previous slide, and lead us to the next one? Does more than one slide express this point? Trim text to the minimum number of words. Bullet points of six words or less; not more than six bullet points on a slide. No more than one slide per minute of total presentation time. Yes, you’ll go through slides faster than a minute each, but that gives time for questions at the end, or to spend more time on complex points.

If you’re trimming down your memoir, make a list of scenes. What “point” does each scene make?

  • This scene with my mom is how I learned my value was based on my appearance
  • This scene with my dad is how I thought alcoholic behavior was “normal”
  • This scene with my ex-boyfriend is about him valuing me only on my appearance…hold up, do I need this? Do I need all of it? Do I need it here?

I’m a weirdo who genuinely enjoys making slides. Even if you don’t join me in this folly, imagine your essay, memoir or novel as a series of static images. What are you watching? What do those images say? What key points should the reader take away? Smooth your transitions from one scene to the next. Weed out duplicates. Trim unnecessary words. And breathe a deep sigh of thankfulness that you’ll never have to try to make Quarter Two’s Sales Numbers memorable.

Like to see these techniques in action? I just added slides for “Beyond Spellcheck: Editing Your Brilliant Next Draft” to my Instagram highlights. It’s meant to be viewed on a phone (it’s sideways), but you can turn your laptop—that’ll be a memorable image, too.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats in Costa Rica, Pennsylvania and Tuscany.

Cash vs. Stuff

February 11, 2020 § 12 Comments

Black and white cartoon. Person one: I can't decide what to be, a millionaire or an artist. Person Two: can't you just compromise? Be a millionaire artist or something.

by Hugh Macleod / Gaping Void

Thank you for your submission. We’d like to publish your essay.

The words every writer wants to hear. And yet…

I’d submitted the essay to a contest. I’d gotten free entry to the contest by participating in a thing, because I don’t normally pay to submit my work. I had not won the contest. In fact, I hadn’t heard who’d won until I looked up the results. But now, the nonfiction editor really liked my piece and would like to publish it.

The contest first prize: $500

What the magazine paid for non-contest publication: $0

I agonized about this in a writers’ group. I felt good about the piece, proud of it. Was it better to take the offer of publication, or to give myself the obligation of submitting to other, paying markets?

Money isn’t the only reason I write, although for me, and at least some other writers, whether or not a venue pays is a primary consideration when determining where to send my work. I also don’t believe that money is a determiner of “good writing.” Many things can identify good writing: whether or not a writer publishes, whether they have the good opinion of other writers or the approval of their teachers, whether they feel good themselves about work that shows growth, that they’re proud of. But simply getting paid is not an indicator of quality writing. Nor is reaching a wide readership.

(Fifty Shades of Grey: roughly 125 million copies sold. The Empathy Exams: 80,000 copies sold.)

Even publication itself is no guarantee of quality. Some writers are published due to gumption, drive, persistence, connections, genre, subject matter, and sheer luck. It is not external validation that determines the quality of our work or anyone else’s. So why do I care whether or not I get paid?

Cash vs. Stuff.

Every job an artist takes, every piece of creative work we make, leads to cash or stuff.

Early-career writers need stuff. Resume credits. Journal titles to list as “work forthcoming in…” in cover letters and queries. Social media clicks and comments, the ego-strokes of seeing our name in print and knowing we wrote something a stranger liked—loved! Showing our mom a magazine and thinking, I did not either waste my time in college.

But mid-career artists need cash. Cash lets us spend less time working our day job, because a $200 check can cover 4-20 hours, depending on what we do. Cash lets us buy Scrivener to organize our manuscript, or upgrade to that pretty Macbook Air so we can write at little Susie’s soccer game. Cash lets us sit in Starbucks all afternoon on a $4 latte while we type-type-type away. Cash buys conferences to connect with agents, and workshops to learn from writers who are a bigger deal than ourselves.

As our work progresses, we need a balance of cash and better stuff. Publication isn’t enough—we want to move from mid-level literary journals to big names, or make the jump to mass media. We want to spend our time drafting a whole book instead of revising an essay for $50. Or if we’re revising the essay, we want it to appear where readers and social clicks are counted in the hundreds of thousands, where we might be noticed by an agent, or somewhere we could be chosen/nominated for an award.

If we’re lucky and privileged, perhaps living somewhere with a low cost of living or with a fully-employed corporate spouse, or on sabbatical, we can focus our search on better stuff, fueled by the safety of having enough cash.

As I debated whether to accept the offer of publication in the journal that didn’t pay, one of the wisest writers I know, Joanne Lozar Glenn, offered another take: Were this journal’s readers my best audience? Was this a chance to share work that would make a difference to an audience that needed to read it?

Joanne’s words helped me decide. The journal, as beautiful as it was, as much as I respected and admired their work and their aesthetic, as much as my essay harmonized with their goals, did not have the size of readership I sought for a piece I cared this strongly about. (Note: I am not that important, but I am that vain.) Giving up a sure thing, a welcome home, was worth the risk of the essay going unpublished, or the hassle of sending it out to more journals. I’d rather take a chance for more cash, or better stuff.

The value of cash vs stuff can only be calculated by the recipient. Your small potatoes may be the largest check another writer has ever received. Your prestigious journal may be someone else’s safety submission. Think about what you need, what makes you feel good, what advances your career. What will make you feel you’ve profited.

Cash, or stuff?

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She also leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats, and would love to see you and your book in Tuscany in October (4 spots left).

Copycats

February 4, 2020 § 10 Comments

CW: Non-graphic sexual abuse

Around the publication, fury, backpedaling, and consistent sales of American Dirt, another issue has arisen. Who gets to tell their story? Who gets to tell it first? Who gets to tell it with the support of the publishing industry?

Publishing’s whiteness is a problem. Publishing’s classism is a problem. These barriers deprive readers of color literary experiences similar to their own, as well as denying people of privilege the opportunity of discovery of other lives without burdening our friends with “please teach me to be better, person of color!” If we don’t publish, purchase and support books from marginalized communities, we are all poorer for it.

But springing from the issue of a previously-white-identifying author’s romantic thriller poorly marketed as a defining literary and cultural experience comes another problem: seeing a story like one’s own and assuming it’s been appropriated.

Responding to the American Dirt controversy, and expanding on her personal experience as a WOC publishing and marketing her memoir, Excavation, Wendy C. Ortiz wrote in Gay Mag:

When I learned of the book My Dark Vanessa, via synopsis online it sounded so much like Excavation I thought I was going to pass out. Stephen King had blurbed it, so I knew immediately it was a book that had been given a major book deal…I felt faint with disappointment and rage. Readers of my book reached out to let me know they saw it, too. The similarity of the stories, and how the book was being marketed, were too obvious to ignore. As much as I would like to avoid a book that fictionalizes an experience I lived, it will be difficult to… It will be placed, sponsored, touted, “dementedly praised” and more, because it has to — there was a seven figure deal.

Excavation, published in 2014, is an adult woman looking back on a five-year sexual relationship that started between her eighth-grade self and her adult English teacher, and trying to reconcile the youthful feelings of “a ‘relationship’ with a man I loved” with the adult realization that the relationship was abusive and harmful.

My Dark Vanessa, just published, is a novel about a woman who “suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life?”

Gosh, that sounds familiar. In fact, it sounds a lot like…

Tiger Tiger (2011) describes the relationship between author Margaux Fragoso, then prepubescent, who meets a 51-year-old-man who “tunes into her likes and dislikes with exquisite enthusiasm, with the result that she comes to see him as a soul mate. The unwavering laser of his attention makes her feel wanted and alive. In a prologue to her [memoir], the adult Margaux writes that spending time with a paedophile ‘can be like a drug high.’ In her own case, it was a drug she was unable to give up.”

Huh. Oh, wait, maybe the one I’m thinking of is a movie?

In The Tale (2018) Jennifer Fox is in her 40s when her mother discovers an essay, written when Jennifer was 13, about a “relationship” with her adult coach. Jennifer, played by Laura Dern, dismisses her mother’s concern, but after re-reading the essay Jennifer looks back on her life. While she remembers herself being older and sophisticated, she discovers old photos showing how small and childlike she was. The movie is based on the director (Jennifer Fox)’s own life.

Or that other movie, An Education, based on Lynn Barbor’s 2003 essay for Granta, her 2009 essay for The Guardian and her memoir about being seduced by an older man at age 16, and shown the sparkling life of cosmopolitan London before realizing her ‘boyfriend’ was a married con man?

Or maybe the plots of all these women’s stories just ring true for me, because ten years ago, I looked back and thought, Maybe that 28-year-old dating 15-year-old me did not have my best interests at heart…but I’m still friends with the 45-year-old who dated 18-year-old me, so what’s the difference?

It’s (sadly) not uncommon to look back as an adult and realize a childhood/very-young-adulthood relationship we believed ourselves an active participant in was not as subject to our own volition as we thought. It’s not uncommon to feel that we gained some positive things from unequal and abusive relationships. It’s less common to write a whole book about it, but I still wouldn’t call four books and two movies in the space of ten years (off the top of my head) rare.

It is not sour grapes to advocate for representation, or even to point out that a memoir by a woman of color was a harder sell than a novel about the same subject, seven years later, by a white author. Those are valid, important and necessary concerns. But when we look for the reasons one book was more embraced by publishing than another, it’s usually not “somebody stole my life.”

As memoirists, we are constantly mining our own experience to find an original telling of a universal tale. It is not our life’s singularity, but the individuality of our voice, our approach, and our personal revelations that make our memoir new. A truly one-of-a-kind story might not even resonate with readers, because part of the value of memoir is seeing ourselves in someone else’s world. True stories change lives because they show, You’re not alone. You’re not the only one who felt like that. You’re not the only one that happened to.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. Find her on Instagram for true stories that may be just like yours.

Jane Friedman’s Guide to Writing Conferences

January 30, 2020 § 2 Comments

Color headshot of a white woman with brown curly hair and glasses, wearing a blue print blouse, against a blurred outdoor backgroundWondering what conference is best for you as a writer, your book and your career? Trying to figure out if pitching agents in person will get more return for your efforts, or hoping to build some speaking credits with your writing-related expertise? The comprehensive guide is here!

Jane Friedman, author of The Business of Being a Writer and publisher of industry newsletter The Hot Sheet, has one of the most valuable websites in the business. With posts on querying, book proposals, writing craft and professional practices, it’s worth your time to browse the archives and keep up with her daily posts, both from Jane herself and a series of guest experts. Now, Jane’s Guide to Getting the Most Out of a Writing Conference gives a terrific overview of just about everything you need to know before choosing, attending, and spending money on a conference.

Key points include:

  • Determining the conference size and focus best for you
  • Connecting with other attendees on social media, even before you arrive
  • Planning your time onsite
  • Why panels are such a crapshoot for sharing expertise, and how moderators and conference organizers can do panels well

…and much more. I especially love Jane’s tips for socializing, even if you’re shy (top tip – carry a paper book, it’s a great conversation starter) and how to follow up socially with writers you want to keep knowing. And of course the number-one thing for presenters to remember: use the microphone. No matter how small the room or how terrific your theatrical training, there’s going to be at least one person with a hearing disability or who becomes a victim of weird acoustics. I’d add, from experience, using the mic means not having to yell everything you say (find those levels!).

Whether you’re packing for AWP or trying to decide if Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference is part of your summer, check this guide first—and enjoy browsing the rest of www.janefriedman.com.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Next week she’s presenting at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature in Dubai.

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