October 10, 2017 § 28 Comments
I’m all about brevity, and not just for Brevity. I’m ruthless with my editing clients’ work. In the big picture, asking if a scene is needed or a subplot is serving the story as a whole. Line by line, chopping words and phrases:
in a car
That night I
fell asleep in my bed anddreamed
got out of his car, walked across the lot, and through the front door of the apartment building, where hepressed the elevatorbutton for the tenth floor.
Not all editors have this near-ridiculous focus on using the fewest possible words to tell the story. And I have to be careful to curb this instinct when working with a writer whose natural style is wordier, or who’s writing in a more-descriptive cultural tradition. But usually, cutting every possible extraneous word benefits an essay or a book. Sharpens the focus. Keeps the reader on what matters instead of losing them in a thicket of less-important language.
The subject of vigorous trimming came up a few weeks ago when I was teaching. I advised a group of memoirists to print their current draft, edit it on paper as much as possible, including scissoring pages apart and moving scenes or paragraphs if needed. Then retype the entire draft into a new document, “Not cutting and pasting, and not adding the edits into the previous document. Retyping.”
I hadn’t realized this was, shall we say, unusual until I caught the looks of horror. Retype an entire manuscript? Every word? When there’s a perfectly good Save As New File option?
But retyping lights up a new part of the brain. Reading words on a paper page and copying them is different than agonizing in one’s head and putting the results on screen. Physically snipping a manuscript into scenes points out repetition in a way that encountering the same scenes while scrolling doesn’t. Retype the entire thing and you’ll know what words to leave out because you won’t want to type them. If you feel resistance at the keyboard to a paragraph or a moment, ask if the book really needs it. Retyping instead of copy-pasting also re-immerses the writer in the flow of the story–sometimes new memories or scenes show up as you go. And it doesn’t take nearly as long as writing the story the first time. For me, the wordcount-per-hour is about four times faster, and a solid two hours of retyping feels like an honest day’s work.
A student asked, “When did you start doing that?”
At first, I didn’t understand the question. Wasn’t vicious trimming part of everyone’s process? (Nope.) I thought back to seventh grade. When I first started
exploring the themes of being misunderstood by parents and peers and the loneliness of the true artist writing terrible middle-school poetry. My grandmother gave me a pretty hardback journal, dark blue with a unicorn–of course it was a unicorn!–stamped in silver. I didn’t want to waste a page. Only final drafts belonged in this book, because only finished pieces deserved a hard cover, thought tween-me. Every poem was first written on looseleaf paper, kept in a manila folder in my Trapper Keeper, because manila felt more grown-up than snapping them into the three-ring section. Every poem was rewritten five, six, ten times, each time removing any word that could be left out. I don’t know why I thought stripping away the excess made better poems, but I was sure it did.
Seventh-grade me was right. Strip away the excess to reveal the heart of the work. Yes, there are voices and styles that require more words–make sure that’s the strongest choice, and even then ask of every word, do you belong here? Are you doing a job no other word can do? Are you earning your place in this line?
Physically rewriting is just enough effort to truly question every line. To find the brevity in your natural voice. When you’re ready, print your draft. Mark it up. Cut it apart. And then retype–your fingers will tell you what belongs.
August 31, 2017 § 6 Comments
Surprise! It’s a podcast! We’ve got a few episodes packed and ready from a whirlwind summer of interviews, so we hope you’ll be enjoying (slightly) more frequent listening. 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 #6 features an interview with Donna Talarico-Beerman on the process of becoming a small press, running a conference, and balancing her own writing time in there, too. We’re also talking all things writing conference over the next few episodes, and we’ve got brief on-the-spot interviews from Lee Martin, Sue William Silverman, and some lovely writer-participants from the Postgraduate Writing Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Kristen Arnett about her new book, Felt in the Jaw.
Show Notes: Episode #6 People and Books
Find out more about Donna Talarico-Beerman at her website.
Today’s the last day to submit to Remember in November
Donna’s essay in the Los Angeles Review, Things That Aren’t Theirs
Questions to ask of a character:
What do I wish for?
What do I hope for?
What is my greatest dream?
What is my greatest fear?
August 24, 2017 § 19 Comments
At the Postgraduate Writing Conference at the Vermont College of Fine Arts earlier this month, Andre Dubus III talked about his writing practice after his three children were born, when he was writing House of Sand and Fog. He and his wife both worked full time, and the hours outside work focused on parenting. He taught as an adjunct at several schools and picked up construction work on the side. How did he write?
Seventeen minutes at a time.
Each morning, he started his morning commute twenty minutes early. Each night, he came home twenty minutes late. At first he pulled into an apartment complex parking lot and wrote in the car, but after ten days someone called the police to check on him. Fortunately, he knew the officer. Dubus relocated to a nearby cemetery. It was quiet. Usually empty of people, especially at 5AM and 6PM. Every morning, and every night, seventeen minutes at a time, writing in pencil in a notebook. In summer, sweating with the car windows down; in winter, with the heat on until he got a carbon monoxide headache and had to stop. All the way to the end of the book.
True, some writers work best with large swaths of time. Writing residencies, the privileges of a spouse able to support the entire family, household help, co-working spaces–all grant us the luxury of time. But most of us have more things in our day than our artistic time, particularly if we’re not making a living (yet) at our art. And it’s hard to carve out substantial time in a busy family and/or professional life.
It’s hard to wrap our heads around this method–“Oh yes, I wrote four words a day for twelve years and then I had a book” is kind of what it sounds like, and it sounds a little ridiculous. For most of us, it’s re-thinking the writing process. There’s no settling-in time, no getting sucked down a research rabbithole that somehow led to Facebook.
But there’s value in touching the manuscript more often, even for shorter periods of time. Just like the atmosphere of a retreat, when our brain knows “I’ll be back at the page in a few hours,” we can find ourselves working through a plot line or suddenly realizing why a character did that awful thing while we’re moving through the world. Commuting with a song associated with our story on repeat, or with silent earbuds playing nothing while we think on the bus.
The first week of short writing bursts usually sucks, because it really is establishing a new habit, which takes time. But after ten days or so, the flow will be triggered by sitting down. You won’t have to work your way in any more.
Maybe it’ll work for you. Maybe it won’t. But there’s only one way to find out. This is a shorter-than-usual Brevity blog: why not take the extra minutes and write?
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference Sept. 8-10 in Lancaster, PA. Want a registration discount code to sign up for a pre-conference workshop? Tweet her!
August 15, 2017 § 7 Comments
It’s time once again for the intermittent Brevity Podcast! Listen 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 #5 features an interview with Dinty W. Moore, our very own Editor in Chief and founder of Brevity. Dinty will be keynote speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Donna Talarico-Beerman, Editor in Chief at Hippocampus and the Hippocampus Press.
Show Notes: Episode #5 People and Books
It’s the wrong time of year for Peeps, but catch them around Easter. If you’re looking for Samuel Pepys, find out more here. You can also read his exhaustive diary, one of the great records of 17th-Century London, including eyewitness reports of the Plague and the Great Fire of London.
August 8, 2017 § 10 Comments
So, you’re going to a writing conference! Workshops! Readings! Panels! Networking! Networking! Lots of networking! Mingling! Socializing! Bonding! Casual chatting through which lifelong writer friendships are forged! INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION AUGHLH JHJKGJKFGHFDGHAKJ–
Hang on, let me just breathe for a minute, and get off this ledge.
Perhaps, like me, you are a mewling, soft-skinned introvert hiding in a shiny I-talk-to-people-professionally-and-I’m-great-at-it shell. But somehow, our work has been found adequate, our check has been cashed, and we are at a writing conference. With group meals. Receptions. Post-reading cocktail hours. Casual gatherings. Late-night lounge time. A few days or a week full of priceless opportunities to open our mouths only to alternate feet.
Fear not. Brevity is here for you. Simply print this handy list of conference conversation openers, tuck it in the back of your name tag, and you’re ready for any writing-related exchange between humans. Just approach any writer or writers, and begin.
- “Wow…that reading…what did you think?”
- “Gosh, isn’t (insert name of workshop leader) just fantastic?”
- “Whose workshop are you in? Oh, they’re great! Tell me all about it!”
- “What are you working on? Oh, that’s great! Tell me all about it!”
- “Is it me or are all these rooms freezing/boiling/too dark/blindingly bright?”
- “How about that box wine!”
- “Where did you come in from? Oh, that’s great! Tell me all about it!”
- “Is it me or is your dorm room mattress horrible, too? Tell me all about your back problems!”
- “Have you seen the book sale yet? I have no idea how I’m going to get them all in my bag.”
- “Box wine! Look, there’s box wine!”
Please note that #6, 9 and 10 can also be used for exiting conversations as needed.
Enjoy your new writing friends, and remember, soon you’ll be home again and can return to communicating with them only through keyboards.
Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams is at conferences the next few weeks. Please come talk to her about box wine, lumbar issues and your writing.
August 1, 2017 § 24 Comments
The time will come when our students, or our mother (in an attempt to seem interested for real and not just because it’s her kid) will ask about essays. “Well, dear,” she might say, “I think it’s lovely. But what do you mean by lyric?”
Or perhaps we will want to write a braided essay, or a collage, without really grasping what, exactly that is. We’ll realize it’s been a while since we were in a workshop and nobody else has the notes, and strongly consider retreating to a nice orderly sonnet. Fourteen lines and a whole four classical rhyme schemes to choose from. Go nuts!
It is for these moments that Brevity presents our Brief Guide to Essays:
They are all lyric, these categories of essays in literary journals and finer mass-media publications and the occasional feminist website. Built on images, using poetic tools like metaphor to evoke feeling in the reader. What’s also important is the blank space, a place for the reader to fill in, to meet the author on the page.
Often, the lyric essay ends with a question–literal or implied–rather than resolution.
Not this one.
Moving as fast as thinking, skipping like a stone idea idea idea fading into the last ripples of the pond. The words making their own spaces, running rampant past line breaks, trampling the meter, shoving their way to the discount dactyls of Prose Black Friday where all the words are on sale. The security guard makes you show him the inside of your alliteration, standing between you and the door of random magnetic words, demanding you focus this piece. Choose a dominant image. Right now you’re stuck in Walmart, the pond of the first line paved over. Shit. Beloved of poster-poem makers, these tiny walls of text breathe to the edges of the page and then retract–they can only stay so long, say so long, hit save, it’s done, sunk like a wrong-shaped stone.
Fragments build a collage. Perhaps passages from your journal, or the journal of a more famous writer you wish to look inspired by. The fragments work like shards of a glass: each one a self-contained moment; a ragged edge flowing into the next. Meaning born through assembly. Try to make the whole watertight–or leak artistically.
I sat in a living room in Bombay with women writers who didn’t have time to write. Too many household obligations. Live-in in-laws, kids needing three hots and a well-made cot, maids who got sick or got lazy and had to be watched. When was the pen supposed to hit the paper, exactly?
In Ohio, we shuffled index cards of memories, our teacher guiding us through only enough text to fit on the card, calming a class of overachievers. It’s never enough to get into writing camp, every day is showing up and saying See what I wrote? I belong, I swear. We re-ordered the cards. Wrote connectors. Essays birthed themselves when we slacked off. Trusted doing less.
The paper shop on the corner had index cards for 30 rupees, so I bought five packs, enough for everyone to take some home. And over vegan ladoos and the memory of all the ladoos ever eaten, round and floury and soaked with ghee, we wrote just enough to fill the cards. Shuffled. Wrote connectors. The hostess looked up. “I could write a card while I wait for the pot to boil.”
In middle school I wrote on McDonalds napkins. In high school, Taco Bell napkins and the backs of receipts. Folders of scraps still live in my basement, waiting.
The Bombay ladies got the point: write small and often. The teacher showed us the point: listen to the words, stop trying so hard. I got the point: clean out the damn basement. You get the point: collage.
You can braid as many strands as you like, but just like with hair, more than three is hard and less than three is even harder.
Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.
As well as the writer’s own voice, a braided essay can use an external voice to provide details the writer may not have known at the time.
The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writers voice, according to Brenda Miller in Tell It Slant.
Inside the braid could be a mini-collage, or a list, or a hermit crab. Perhaps a definition useful to the essay, or a quotation.
Repetition is the key. If there’s not repetition, it’s probably a collage.
Some nice braided essays:
Seriously. The strands have to repeat.
It sounds so adorable, right? A little crab scootching into a new shell, growing to fill it, taking the contours of the shell as its own. No special equipment is needed; this is an excellent starter essay you can make at home.
2) Pack the prosaic form full of meaningful images. Use Table Mountain, and the man who was every bit as selfish as your friend said he was and left the windows open while you froze, who didn’t hug you when you got the news.
3) Tweak the writing to both explore and subvert the outer form; it’s not just a recipe for an essay, it’s the way to finish this blog post and process my father’s death.
4) Dropping a little bomb like that is nice in a hermit crab.
5) Let the form dictate the essay. Much like our maligned sonnets, the creativity comes from exploiting the form itself.
6) For example, recipes by definition end happily. I broke up with him. I mourned as much as I needed to. And I finished this essay in time to post on Tuesday.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.
July 25, 2017 § 12 Comments
Sometimes writing is a glorious creative flow, images tumbling out in perfect sequence and in the exact right words to express them. Other times, it’s a slog.
I know this isn’t quite working but I don’t know why.
When it happened, the experience wasn’t this…blah.
Where the heck do I start the next draft?
One door in to a difficult draft is to focus on the technical. Word choices, parts of speech, sentence lengths, paragraph constructions. Our medium is words, and just as an oil painting is unlike a watercolor or a graphic design, the mechanics of language can shape our story, sometimes even leading the creative process rather than reflecting it.
Over at Poetry Foundation, Carmen Giménez Smith has Twenty-Two Poem Hacks for addressing a poem technically. Most of the twenty-two are also terrific tools for working on an essay or short story. Some choice bits:
1. Lose that first stanza: The first stanza is often the path to a poem, and it provides scaffolding for us, but our reader doesn’t need it as much as we do. Read the poem without the first stanza, and see how much is missing. Consider how quickly the first stanza situates the reader in the poem.
Replace stanza with “paragraph.” Sometimes even with “page.” A novelist I’m editing heard an agent say, “Many manuscripts, the story actually begins 50 pages in. Cut the first 50 and see where you are.” The novelist (bravely) did, and the book immediately leapt to life, starting the reader in the action. From those first pages, only a few pieces of information were still needed, and the writer wove them in later.
8. Assess your use of cognitive handles: Language like “I feel,” “I remember,” “I think,” etc. often points to the obvious work of cognition. We rarely need them, and more importantly, they offset the potential for a dynamic subject-predicate engagement. Remove them whenever possible, then move the subsequent language into the spotlight.
This language is also called “filtering,” and filtering reminds the reader, “You are not this narrator. The narrator is a separate person who did something that happened somewhere/somewhen else.”
I looked across the room at Bob vs. Bob stood across the room.
By removing the filters, the reader sees through the eyes of the character, steps into their shoes. The reader can be immersed in the story and feel their own reactions to events.
13. Clauses and fragments: Fragments can serve us well in a poem, but if we have a conventional clause (subject-predicate) divided by a period, we should ask why break up that engagement with energy and momentum.
In prose, this energy interruption is also seen in long sentences full of prepositional phrases. Prepositions often denote location in space or time, and every time a new phrase shows up, the reader’s sense of location jumps. A rough-draft sentence:
She went into the store on the corner and looked on the shelf for the familiar red packet she’d eaten from so long ago at her mother’s table in the blue house where she’d felt so alone, as alone as she felt this morning at her own table.
It’s not just that this sentence is overly long (long can be great when it’s a choice). It’s that it contains 10 prepositional phrases, each of which takes the reader to a different time, physical location, or state of being.
And beautifully, Giménez Smith points out the technical work of vulnerability:
21. Revise toward strangeness: The poem should make you uncomfortable and it should challenge you. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” –Robert Frost
It’s not an accident that our essays become raw and riveting and compelling. It’s the writer receiving that moment of You can’t tell that or But what if everyone finds out or Maybe I’m the only one who feels like this and writing into it instead of away from it.
Check out all Twenty-Two Poem Hacks here–and dive into that next draft, OK?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.
July 18, 2017 § 110 Comments
Before I was a writer, I was an acrobat. Not the kind that flips through the air–the kind who holds up other smaller, younger acrobats who look better in the same spandex costume. A “base.”
I loved it. I loved being the one who makes sure everyone is ready, calls the move, Hup!, then adjusts while the flyer holds still. Stay straight, tight and trusting. Don’t balance yourself, let me balance you.
I loved that I could lift men bigger than me and women in acrobat class who were also bigger than me and had spent years not letting anyone lift them because they felt “too heavy.” That I could grab someone the right size and move them through a basic routine right away, as long as they did exactly what I said. I got really good at giving directions, verbal cues, nudging with my toes, letting flyers know, I got you. You can trust me. You can fly.
My last and best partner was (and is) small and beautiful and flexible enough that even circus people admire her backbend and over-splits. A pleasure to lift, a joy to try new moves with. Between shows in Canada, we stood on a stretch of lawn next to a giant parking lot and worked on a new move, one that scared her, that she’d fallen out of before. “I’ve got you,” I said. “The only thing I can’t save is if you bend forward hard and fast–there’s not enough leverage to stop you–so use your hands if you start falling.”
She bent forward hard and fast and without her hands, and her head slammed into the ground. We got ice and a shady place to sit and she said, “I’m just so scared of that move. I want to do it, but…”
I said, “Well, when you decide you love doing the trick more than you love being scared of it, you’ll get it,” which was callous and hurtful, and she was indeed hurt, and unhappy for an hour until we did the show and our routine and my hands and feet told her again, I love you, I respect you, I’ve got you.
What I said was mean. It was also true. Acrobats must love the flight more than fearing injury or literal death. Not instead of fear–just more.
My writer buddy wants me to blog about going forward after bad feedback. About what it’s like to finally put out a piece you like, that your friends have given good criticism on and said “It’s ready,” and then receive literary magazine criticism so sharp and painful it makes you want to curl up and cry and never write again. Certainly, you never want to submit again. You may even start thinking that all the strangers who criticize and reject are right and the friends who read your work are only pacifying you, saying to each other behind your back, “We’d better not let her know how bad she really is.”
I think about writing on that topic, and I think about how many rejections I’ve gotten, and the painfulness of criticism not only by email and form letter and Submittable, but also in newspaper reviews of your self-written solo show, and to your face from people who are sober and sane but still need to say how much they dislike you. I remember that time I got yelled at on Dragon’s Den and cried and me being yelled at and crying made the network season promo and is still well-known enough in Canada that people come up to me on the street and say “Don’t let anyone shit on your dreams!” Or that time Howard Stern got an entire audience to stand up and boo me, personally, in my hometown. (Reality TV, good times!)
Why did I still perform? Why do I still submit work? Why do I write deeply personal essays and send them into the world to get back the stab of “Sorry this does not meet our needs at this time”?
Because I love being published more than I love protecting myself from being hurt. Not instead of–just more.
There are tricks to make it better. Every agent rejection after a request for manuscript pages gets a one-line “thanks for taking a look!” email. When I performed in theatres, I wrote paper thank-you notes to all reviewers regardless of number of stars. To even the guy who said my performance was meh, “Thank you for taking the time to share my show with your readers!” Writing back, saying thank you, I’m a person, makes me feel like a participant in the artistic dialogue, someone with differing taste instead of a victim of judgment.
And it does get easier. The more I submit, the more likely I am to feel a brief sting and move on, like brushing against the oven door. An hour later, I’ve forgotten. The more I submit, the less any one place feels like my “dream” venue or agent. The more likely I am to think, “Welp, sorry this wasn’t for you–who’s next on the list?”
In order to keep sending out work, I have to love being published more than I love not feeling shitty about rejection. Applying this idea to writers struggling with their own rejections is cold and callous and hurtful. I feel mean when I think it or say it. But it’s also the truth, and it’s a decision we all get to make:
Publication or not getting hurt feelings.
What do you love more?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a Self-Editing intensive and offering one-on-one feedback meetings at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference, September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.