June 17, 2021 § 9 Comments
Last night, in a webinar for Creative Nonfiction, we talked about sentences. What makes them soar lyrically across the page; what makes them stumble awkwardly into your editor’s inbox. Two great questions came in afterward (Thank you Maria-Veronica and Catherine!). First:
What are the most important or key elements that make a long sentence great? In what way can it have as great an impact as a short one?
I love long sentences. The bane of my MFA existence was classmates who “corrected” what they saw as run-on sentences in my work. Thanks for the effort, fellow writers, but 90% of the time I wanted the sentence that long! Maria-Veronica’s question made me think deeply about why. What makes a long, complex, multi-claused sentence not a run-on?
1) Rhythm: the sentence pulls the reader in with flow or beats, often including deliberate repetition.
2) Direction: the sentence spirals deeper into a moment, or the sentence zooms out to show context as part of the immediate moment. If the direction changes, the reader is clearly brought along.
3) Unity: the sentence has one time and one location, unless there’s a specific reason to go elsewhere; or the sentence uses one metaphor and explores it fully. We’re expanding one moment, not compressing a whole bunch of moments into one.
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
– Jack Kerouac, On The Road
Note how the deliberate repetition of “mad”-syllable-syllable establishes rhythmic beats. “To be saved” breaks the pattern and slows us a little as the clauses get longer. Then, repeating “burn” accelerates the sentence through the final, un-punctuated image.
On the ground, in the cave, now wrapped in darkness, they found themselves airborne over hills and valleys, floating through blue clouds to the mountaintop of pure ecstasy, from where, suspended in space, they felt the world go round and round, before they descended, sliding down a rainbow, toward the earth, their earth, where the grass, plants, and animals seemed to be singing a lullaby of silence as Nyawira and Kamiti, now locked in each other’s arms, slept the sleep of babies, the dawn of a new day awaiting.
– Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow
The sentence starts in a close, intimate moment, then zooms out to the feeling of sexual release and otherworldly expansion. Halfway through, “sliding down a rainbow” navigates the reader from the universe back down toward earth; the things on earth; the people; and the sentence circles back to where we started.
He’d say “I love you” to every man in the squad before rolling out, say it straight, with no joking or smart-ass lilt and no warbly Christian smarm in it either, just that brisk declaration like he was tightening the seat belts around everyone’s soul.
– Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Forty-five words showing and exploring how one man says, “I love you.”
For fun, try rearranging the words in one of the sentences above and seeing how their power diminishes in another order. (These and many other beautiful sentences at https://thejohnfox.com/beautiful-sentences/)
I’m also a fan of the sentence fragment, judiciously deployed. Catherine asked about one of the samples on my slides, a fragment from Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and here’s the whole gorgeous passage:
An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.
The ten fragments (and two grammatically complete sentences) are showing death, from the point of view of the person experiencing it, as a series of physical experiences flashing into consciousness and then unconsciousness.
Use whatever sentence structures make your story sing on the page. If that’s fragments, great! If that’s run-ons, make ’em work! The important part is knowing what you’re doing—it’s not a fragment because you messed up, it’s a fragment chosen to best deliver that moment of the story. There is no prize for “best grammar” in the publishing world, no golden star for subject-verb agreement, no blue ribbon for adjective order or time served for use of adverbs, but plenty of writers bend language to their will.
Be one of them.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Pre-order Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, or join her June 28 for a free keynote or paid masterclass on writing YA Memoir with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators of Western Washington.
June 15, 2021 § 4 Comments
Hello? Ex-Husband? Why you were such a terrible person?
Interviewing people in your memoir can fill in details about settings you were too young (or emotionally unable) to remember, and explain personal logic behind choices that hurt you. But how the heck can you have a civil conversation with your abuser, your estranged parent or your ex?
Writing a good memoir means connecting deeply with your own feelings and experiences—then setting them aside and approaching potentially traumatic conversations with the detachment of a documentary filmmaker.
Don’t start with “Why’d ya throw me down the stairs, Dad?” If you’re there to make a point, challenge your sister’s truth, or get your mom to agree with your version of events, your interview is already tainted. They’ll feel it. They’ll get defensive. And there you are, right back in the relationship you were trying to process and move past. When interviewing perpetrators of your trauma—or just plain awful people—focus on knowing and understanding another person and the logic that made their own choices make sense. Truly listening doesn’t mean you agree!
Start easy. First interview people you enjoy talking to. Even if you clearly remember a positive event, they’ll fill in more detail. Your best friends can gently remind you of times you weren’t on your best behavior, and those belong in your memoir, too.
Lower the stakes. Set up interviews in comfortable, reasonably neutral locations.
- Record on your phone if needed. Microphones feel “official.”
- Talking in the car can yield intimate, thoughtful conversations—you’re sitting close, but without uncomfortable eye contact.
- Avoid assigning blame or questioning their integrity. Instead of “Why did you…?” or “Why didn’t you…?” ask, “When (specific event happened), what were your feelings and thoughts?” or “Are you able to tell more about what happened when…?”
Give fair warning. Anna Sale of the podcast Death Sex and Money says:
First, you need to ask yourself why you want to have a conversation about something hard. Then, when you initiate, start by asking if it is a good time to talk, and talk about why you want to have this particular conversation. “I’ve been wondering about something,” or “I need to tell you something I haven’t.” With this groundwork, you are signaling that you want to go into a different mode together. Again and again… when I explain why I am asking a particularly sensitive question, people are much more open to answering it. They feel invited in, rather than ambushed…
Prepare…then go with the flow. Make a list of questions, but let the conversation roam. Near the end, pull out your list and see if there’s anything important you haven’t gotten to. You can say ‘I really want to hear more about…’ ‘Can we talk about…?’ or ‘I’m going to take a jump here and ask you about…’
Let them feel heard. The Body Keeps the Score author Bessel Van Der Kolk says, “Being validated by feeling heard and seen is a precondition for feeling safe, which is critical when we explore the dangerous territory of trauma.” Use validating language like:
- Thank you for sharing this with me.
- I hear you.
- I appreciate that this must be difficult for you.
Nonverbal cues, like nodding or “hm/uh-huh” can be helpful. If someone gets emotional:
- This reaction is normal considering what you’ve been through.
- I’m sorry you had to go through that.
Use silence. Let the silence stretch after you ask a question. After an answer, avoid jumping right in with the next question. Often, your interviewee will feel the need to fill the silence, and their spontaneous response may be more revealing.
Stay aware of body language. Watch for closing-off gestures like folded arms, looking away, or legs crossed away from you. Listen for short, clipped answers or vocal tension. These are cues to back off or leave this subject for another time. If your subject is open and relaxed, you can probably push further.
Bring them back to normal. If you leave your subject happy, they’re more likely to talk again. End your interview with a positive question:
- How’s your day-to-day life now?
- How do you like to unwind or spend the weekend?
- What’s the best part of your life right now?
- Do you have any plans for after we talk?
Ask twice. If you can, talk again a couple weeks later. Often, people remember more details after your questions have been on their mind.
Interviewing with a genuine intention to hear and understand the other person helps you treat them fairly in your book. You’ll also be able to contextualize poor decisions other people made, or times they hurt you, if you allow them to tell you their logic at the time. You don’t have to forgive them, or forget what they did. But asking real questions and allowing truthful answers (even from shitty people!) yields information you need to write your book. Let your readers judge their character. Your job is to extract more truth with less trauma—for you or anyone else.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her Wednesday (tomorrow!) for Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. A recording will be available to registered participants if you can’t make it live.
June 8, 2021 § 8 Comments
Everyone hates on adverbs.
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.William Zinsser, On Writing Well
But adverbs are still needed in your writing. Like plumbers, you don’t want them randomly hanging around, but when a pipe is clogged or a sentence struggling for meaning, you gotta call them in.
When to use adverbs, and when to throw them out?
Replace redundant adverbs.
She set her coffee on the counter, slightly annoyed.
But annoyed is already a diminished anger. Slightly isn’t further illustrating her state of mind. Let the verb show what the adverb is telling.
She thumped her coffee on the counter.
Skip the “duh” adverbs.
If something happens suddenly or obviously, juxtapose events on the page to make it sudden or obvious to the reader. Strangely often means, “I-the-writer know this is not logical, so I’ll skirt around justifying it.” Show what happened and let the reader make the unusual choice or experience the unusual situation with you.
He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. Strangely, I still wanted to have lunch.
He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. When he twisted a pink balloon into a dog, bobbing its head to signify “may I?” the perky rubber tail made me laugh too hard to stop him sitting down.
Currently isn’t needed unless you’re being ironic:
Currently, he was eating gumdrops.
Copies of his bestselling diet cookbook, ready for signing, were piled on the kitchen counter. Currently, he was eating gumdrops.
(Why yes, I am aware that “ironic” is not strictly defined as “humorously contradictory” and derives from the Greek eirōneia, in which the significance of a tragic character’s words or actions is seen by the audience while the character remains unaware. But I’m a linguistic descriptivist, so don’t @me. Or Alanis Morissette.)
Most adverbs modifying dialogue can go.
Use the dialogue itself plus punctuation to show how a line is said:
“Tell me right now!” she said
Right now + exclamation point = quickly. No extra adverb needed.
As a playwright, I learned to avoid the parenthetical adverbs beloved of beginning dramatists:
RAJ (angrily): Where is my pen?
SANDOR (sweetly): It’s in the drawer.
Those adverbs are the playwright wrenching the actors’ emotional valves from the page, instead of letting the director guide the scene in rehearsal. Some directors even cross out adverbs and stage directions before giving the actors their scripts, to facilitate discovery. (Sometimes this backfires—one memorable exchange between a director and the playwright visiting to see their script in action: “We’ve been trying to figure it out in the scene, why does she stop talking here?” “Oh, you’ve crossed out the stage direction. It says, she dies.”)
Write dialogue so it must be said as you intend, I learned. If there’s anger, or sadness, or gentleness, put it in the dialogue itself. This goes for prose, too. Let the words show the reader how they’re said instead of slapping an adverb on dialogue that isn’t pulling its weight.
“That’s him,” she said accusingly.
“He ripped me off, I know it!” she shouted.
“Yeah, he’s the freakin’ thief,” she said.
“That’s the a-hole who crashed my motorcycle.”
With adverbs that modify verbs, consider adjusting the action:
He turned angrily and raised his fist.
He whipped around, his fist raised.
He spun, his fist raised.
Adverbs work best when they contradict or add another layer to what they modify.
He smiled bitterly.
They ran haltingly.
She danced jerkily.
Each of those adverbs suggests “the way you normally see this verb is not the way it’s happening right now.”
In P.D. James’ A Certain Justice, adverbs suggest a contrast with how memory is normally perceived and experienced:
Memory was like a film of sharply focused images, the set arranged and brightly lit, the characters formally disposed, the dialogue learnt and unchangeable, but with no linking passages.
The memories aren’t soft and blurry as we might expect, and they miss connections from image to image.
Plumb the adverbs in your own work:
1) Search in your manuscript for “ly”—if you put a space after the ly, you’ll get only word endings (not all adverbs end in ly, but it’s a start). Ask two questions of each adverb: Is it already shown in the dialogue or action it describes? Can you strengthen the dialogue or verb to make the adverb unnecessary?
2) Repeat the process with a list of common non-ly adverbs.
3) Read a play—I always recommend Patrick Marber’s Closer, but any good play will do—and notice how dialogue can show how it’s said without many adverbs.
Adverbs aren’t your enemy—but they’re subcontractors rather than friends. Invite them in to serve their purpose; bid them farewell when the job is done. Firmly.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Want more ways to write better sentences? Join her for the webinar Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar, June 16th (recording will be available if you can’t make it live) with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. More info/register now.
May 25, 2021 § 3 Comments
We’re all concerned about hurting others or getting hurt.
We all want to share our story as truthfully as possible.
What happens when these are diametrically opposed? When your ex threatens to take the kids, Aunt Mildred screams at you on the phone, and your mom says she’s “not mad…just disappointed”?
Your story matters, and you get to write it the way you remember. It’s called a memoir, not a “comprehensive review of all facts.” But you can take steps throughout your writing and publishing process to minimize fallout and family strife.
Write the book. You may discover a new story thread as you write, leaving out the worrisome scene or the touchy relative. You may discover that actually, you have five scenes showing why you became a mountain climber, Aunt Mildred saying you’d never amount to anything isn’t the strongest one, and you’re cutting it.
Seek out other perspectives. If you’re not speaking to your antagonists, ask their family members. If you are, interview like a documentarian. Don’t ask, “Why did you push six-year-old me down the stairs, Dad?” Instead, “Tell me about how we interacted when I was a kid. What were our days like?” You might cry in your car after every interaction, but you’ll get better material by starting from a neutral position.
Do as much showing as possible. Describe behavior and show its effects on those around the person. It can be very meaningful to write an antagonist’s perception of herself, giving her view serious consideration (Is Grandma an alcoholic or is she just “jolly”? Are you being judgmental?). Balance makes a more interesting book, with more for the reader to think about. Give the clues to the problem—make the reader a detective who puts it all together.
Rest the book. Every author, fiction or non, needs a resting period for their book. If you’re a category romance novelist churning out ebooks for dollars (you go!), that might be an afternoon. But for memoirists, your final-draft manuscript should sit without your attention for a minimum of six weeks, and ideally six months. Coming back to a book with fresh eyes is one of the best editorial techniques I know. When you come back, read the manuscript into your phone’s voice recorder. This will teach you where your voice is overly formal or just plain awkward, and the saying it aloud part confirms, “Yes, I really do want to say this, in this way.” Then play the recording back. Listening also shows where your book needs revision.
Get the deal. Before you tell any relatives the book is done. No point in getting everyone all fired up if it turns out you’ve written a “practice” memoir. When you’re contracted, an agent or publisher (or freelance editor, if you’re not ready to query or you’re self-publishing) can help navigate second thoughts. A supportive stranger’s perspective on your portrayal of a partner or relative can confirm your words are fair.
Step with caution if you’re in mid-divorce or a custody battle. But divorce papers get signed and custody gets solved, and your book will still be there when the time to publish is right.
Prepare for engagement. Plan and rehearse what you’ll respond to questions you’re dreading and how you’ll handle interactions with people in your book.
Tell your sibling, “Isn’t it fascinating how we can grow up in the same family and have such different experiences? I’d love to read your version of the story someday.”
Tell your parents, “You don’t have to read it, but I hope you’ll support me sorting out my own experiences on paper.” It’s not the first time you’ve hurt your parents’ feelings (we were all 13 once!) and it’s probably not going to be the last.
Most people who threaten to sue don’t, won’t or can’t. It’s not as easy as they think, and it’s not cheap.
There is no memoir-publishing without penalties. You are never going to get off scot-free. Someone you were very kind to will be unhappy anyway. Someone you didn’t even mention will be mad you left them out. People will remember things differently. Your book will sell a ton of copies and your friends will be jealous and even more people will read it and be mad. Or your book will hardly sell at all and your enemies will triumph. Cousin Mark will be mad you talked bad about his dad. Your mom will be upset you dug up that old family story. Your kid will be embarrassed you talked about changing their diaper.
You can’t stop people from feeling their feelings and having their own memories, and you will never finish your book if you are trying to please them more than you are trying to tell your story.
A memoir is, by definition, one person’s memory. Be honest with yourself, be kind when you can be, and put in a disclaimer about memory at the beginning. Write your best work and brace yourself—sharing your journey is worth it.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Worried about navigating your own memory as you write? Join her this Thursday for Memoir From Memory: Telling the Right Story with Confidence. 1PM Eastern, recording available if you can’t make it live. Register now.
May 10, 2021 § 9 Comments
With summer around the corner, the Brevity staff slips out to the deck and into our summer schedule of waterskiing, forest hikes, and celebrating our vaccination status around the campfire. A new issue of Brevity comes out next week—you’ll love the beautiful essays and thoughtful craft pieces. Start making that summer reading list from Brevity book reviews (and please do drop your own reviews on Amazon and Goodreads of the new books you’re reading.) And stay tuned as well for announcements regarding our greatly expanded “Teaching Brevity” section of the website!
We’ll still be posting to the Brevity blog, on a slightly more relaxed schedule, and we’ll keep reading blog submissions at a summery pace. In June we’ll be rolling out a new feature—biweekly writer advice!—and we’ll be calling soon for your writing, editorial and publishing conundrums.
Meanwhile, tell us what you hope for from the Brevity blog. What pieces have stuck with you, and what do you want to see more of? Essay pitching tips, querying or submissions advice, writer’s life, journal reviews, writing craft, exercises to try yourself or teach? What haven’t you seen that you’d love to read on Brevity?
We’re so thankful to be sharing a writerly summer with you, beautiful readers. Let us know what else we should share. We’ll be on our inflatable pool loungers (Dinty’s floating on a wise giraffe, Allison’s on a toothy alligator, of course), ready to hear your thoughts. Swim up and join us.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor
May 6, 2021 § 22 Comments
My MFA taught me a lot about writing. It didn’t teach me jack about publishing. Yet somehow, I published. I queried. I got an agent. I’m publishing again. And through all that, I became someone who gets paid to teach people how to write and publish. I can tell authors how to write a query, when to send it and to whom. I can say why a manuscript is too short, what can be cut if it’s too long, and how to save a thousand dollars on editing with fixes you can do yourself in a (very intense) weekend. I can even make you like social media—and discover why you don’t really need quite so much of it.
I acquired this information long after I finished my MFA, and I got most of it for free. Two years before my first round of querying, I began reading 8 different agent blogs, going back in the archives a couple posts at a time until I’d read their entire blogs. In the process, I saw how publishing evolved 1998-2010, and learned whose taste (and advice) had been proven right. Since then, I’ve broadened my sources, keeping current with publishing news, platform-building trends, and writing techniques so I can share what I know with you.
Unless you’re also planning on becoming an editor/coach of both fiction and memoir, you don’t need to know everything I know. But you do need to know a lot. Fortunately, most of what you need is already available online, where you can access a wealth of writing, editing, platform and publishing information at your convenience, in your pajamas, for (mostly) free.
Sources I recommend:
Writer Beware! the Blog covers publishing bad practices and scams, and they aren’t afraid to name names with documentation. Read as far back in the archives as you can, and you’ll know how to avoid existing scams and recognize new ones.
The #Amwriting podcast gives useful and specific information about the writing process, publishing and marketing from a literary agent, two authors, and a variety of special guests. Lively and fun listening!
While Query Shark (dormant, but excellent archives) focuses on fiction queries, watching how queries evolve from terrible to “send now!” and seeing common mistakes will teach you to improve your own.
Kate McKean’s Agents and Books newsletter has both free and paid versions ($5/month). Past newsletters include advice on querying, the parts of a book contract, and what to do when there’s a mistake in your book’s online listing.
Want writing assignments to magically appear in your inbox? Here they come! The Story and Spark newsletter offers biweekly craft lessons with a short story and a writing prompt. Matt Bell’s newsletter offers monthly writing exercises with wonderful context.
Jane Friedman offers frequent, inexpensive webinars (usually $25) focusing on different aspects of writing and publishing, with handouts, recordings, and Q&A. (My next one, Memoir From Memory, is May 27)
Creative Nonfiction magazine offers inexpensive webinars (usually $15-25) on writing and publishing, especially for those with a more literary bent. Upcoming topics include daily writing practice, incorporating details, and my own Writing Powerful Sentences.
It’ll take more of your time, but volunteer as a reader for your favorite literary magazine (just email them and ask when/if they need readers). Nothing will teach you more about the submission process, and what makes engaging writing, than seeing what actually arrives in a literary inbox.
The weekly Virtual Author & Writer Events newsletter lists free and paid readings, classes, workshops, talks and author interviews. (You can list your own events, too!)
The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A, biweekly on Zoom, covers publishing, self-promotion and writing better, and includes networking time with other writers, and a lively chat box each episode. The May 11 episode will focus on querying.
The gentle, Canadian podcast And She Looked Up Creative Hour, aimed at visual artists, has process, selling, and writing-life advice. Start with Episode 18: How to Get a Book Deal when Nobody Knows Who You Are.
Jane Friedman’s Sunday Business Sermons: Part of her service to the community, Jane’s a publishing expert sharing what’s made her successful, from mailing lists to online courses to how she gets everything done. Watch the replays on Facebook.
People who want to sell you something: Very often, experts and coaches offer free introductory webinars—usually about 30-45 minutes of information and another 20-25 minutes of “buy my services.” Social posting apps like Tailwind and Preview send regular newsletters with tips and tricks for using and enjoying Instagram. You might want their services eventually, but you can access the free information now. Websearch [topic I want to know about] + “free webinar” or “free training” and you’ll be amazed what pops up.
You can start reading/watching/listening casually, or plan a curriculum for yourself with regular times to learn, do additional research, and blog or write from your new information. However you do it, work self-education into your routine. I listen to Jane Friedman while I do the dishes; literary podcasts in the car. I bought a seated exercise bike so I can pedal while catching up on social media and newsletters (sorry, Peleton-eers).
Whether or not you have an MFA, educating yourself about publishing is a largely self-driven process. The truth is out there. It’s (mostly) free. And it’s up to you to find it.
Tell us in the comments who you love for writing and publishing info!
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to learn what she knows? Writing, editing, publishing and platform consultations can be booked here.
May 4, 2021 § 29 Comments
By Morgan Baker
The world is slowly opening, and we’re all trying to figure out what’s safe to do. I’ve started seeing notices and ads announcing writing retreats coming up in different locales – Italy, Florida, Cuba and Newfoundland – and notices about residencies to which a writer can apply to work in solitude and join others for meals.
I, for one, am not going to a movie theater any time soon, let alone any residencies, retreats or workshops in far-off lands. I have always looked at those writing havens with envy. I live outside of Boston and fantasize about warmer climates where I could write and converse with other writers. But, I can’t afford them, nor could I really leave my teaching job to go write in Costa Rica. But while we were all locked in our houses and everyone took to the internet, this pandemic gave me a writing community – something I’ve never really had, and I’ve been at this work for a while. I am not a big self-promoter and I’m not particularly good at inserting myself in others’ lives.
Not only did I zoom with my stepfather and my coffee group in the past twelve months, I have taken more writing classes and gone to more workshops and seminars than ever before. I took classes with instructors I had only dreamed of working with. I signed on to the Writers’ Bridge “platform chat” and every two weeks listened to what Allison K Williams and Ashleigh Renard had to share with the writers there – more than 200 of us – about social media, getting blurbs for your book, how to be a good literary citizen, and how to write effective social posts. I am in a bi-monthly Zoom workshop with a teacher I’ve worked with in asynchronous classes, but I’d never seen her face. She’d had in-person workshops in the Pacific Northwest or Hawaii, to which I could not go. Now I discuss my writing projects with her and a few other writers in kitchens and home offices. We have become friends and critical readers.
I have learned from a literary agent’s seminar to concentrate on one of my writing projects. I worked on a piece about my pandemic quilting with a teacher in New York City, and placed the essay later. I wrote yet another piece comparing quilting to writing that also found a home, here. In yet another workshop, I was encouraged to write with humor. So far I’ve failed at that.
I met more writers through Instagram and workshops. I don’t know any of them in “real” life, but I am connected to them through their writing, and their books have illuminated new stories and deepened my understanding of the world.
I joined Facebook groups, where I stalk and read, but rarely post. I created a mini writing group that meets every three weeks. We live in Massachusetts, Ohio and Montreal. I joined another group that meets most Fridays as a drop-in session. In January I closed the door to my home office keeping my husband, daughter and dog out so I could focus, committing myself to a virtual retreat all day for 5 days. It was so successful, I’ve signed up for another one. While we weren’t all lounging on a Costa Rican patio, we were in each others’ homes. One writer’s background was a pile of packing boxes, others sat in bedrooms and kitchens. Some had home offices that looked tidier than mine. These “visits” are probably the closest I’ll get to sitting in a warm climate, staring at a view of mountains or the sea.
Before the pandemic, I offered private writing workshops in my house, in addition to my college teaching. I engaged with the writers who drank tea and discussed their work at my dining room table where my dog came to say hi every meeting. Then the world stopped, and I moved my workshops from my table to my Zoom account. I’ve had participants from California, Rhode Island and Cambodia. I will continue these even when we’re all back to hugging one another.
While the world shrank and slowed down, I’ve been busier than ever with my writing. I’m in my sunny yellow home office all the time. I’m either teaching my college classes, writing, editing for the web magazine I work for, or connecting with other writers.
I hate the pandemic, don’t get me wrong. My father-in-law died from Covid, I don’t see my friends, and I haven’t seen my father in over a year. Recently, I was able to hug my stepfather. He and his partner have been holed up in their home, going for lots of walks, playing the recorder, and futzing on the computer, but isolated. Now all vaccinated, we sat at their dining room table for dinner and talked. It felt so right and so weird.
I’m glad the CDC has said I don’t have to wear a mask all the time, but I probably will until I can trust that those unvaccinated are still wearing theirs. But when writers start drifting away from their computers to fly to glamorous in-person retreats, I will wish them well – and wave them on from the ground.
Morgan Baker teaches at Emerson College where she was honored with the Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is also the Managing Editor of The Bucket. Her work can be found at The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under The Gum Tree, Expression, among other publications. She is working on a memoir about her empty nest.
April 13, 2021 § 5 Comments
Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe you give each other live feedback, maybe you write it down, maybe both. And maybe, each time you look over your marked-up pages, you think:
Well…Bob certainly added a lot of commas…
Wow…Jane left like 30 comments. Now I feel bad I only gave her 4…
Cindy, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means…
“Enjoyed reading”? I made thoughtful comments on every one of your pages and I get back “Enjoyed reading”?!?!?
And yet, a writing group is still a great place for critique without spending a fortune on professional editing or getting an(other) MFA. How can you make your group effective for each writer?
Set clear ground rules.
Ask writers what they need.
Deliberately apply not only the feedback you got, but the feedback you gave.
Ground rules: Ever spent 22 minutes on one person’s pages and 7 on another’s? Ever needed big-picture feedback but got proofreading? Establish specifically what the group is going to do. If you have a defined leader, ask them for guidelines (they might feel weird about imposing rules unless you ask). If your group is egalitarian, bring it up yourself: “Hey, can we set a timer to give each person about the same amount?”
Set expectations for the amount and type of feedback. Frustrated with the number of comments you’re getting versus those you’re receiving? Ask! “Hey, am I overdoing it? I’m leaving 15-20 comments on y’all’s work, and I’m getting back 2-3. Is my feedback overwhelming or should I be asking you all for more?” Then you’ll know—do you need to ease off, are they slacking/unaware, or do you need a more rigorous group?
Ask what they need: For live feedback, you could choose the Liz Lerman critical response model, in which you ask, “Do you want to hear a thought on X?” The artist responds that yes, they do, or sorry, no, they aren’t working on that right now.
Control your own feedback by asking for what you need. Write at the top of your submitted pages, or say when it’s your turn, “Today I need to hear whether the sequence of events makes sense, and where I could add more tension. Please don’t bother to proofread or fix punctuation—I’m not at that stage.”
If you’re new to a group, try for at least one comment every other page, plus 3-5 sentences of your overall impressions at the end. Comment on what’s working as well as what isn’t. Be specific, and ask questions rather than dictating answers:
I’m getting that she’s a spy, from the radio she’s carrying, but then she says she’s just a mom—is that her cover?
Should we think he’s a jerk from stealing the bike? How much time will we spend with him in the rest of the book?
Then see what everyone else gives you and calibrate accordingly, or follow the example of the writer you think gives the most helpful feedback.
Particularly if you’re in a group of writers widely different in experience or skill, feedback often says more about the giver than the words. Pay attention to what each person says about everyone else’s work. If you think they’re off-base about another writer’s pages, take their advice with a grain of salt. If you find yourself agreeing with Janet that yeah, Sally’s pages lack a clear dramatic action, take Janet’s feedback more seriously on your own work.
Apply the feedback: Write down the verbal feedback and read your marked-up pages. If you agree and feel excited, get in there and revise. If you’re confused or unhappy, take a couple days, then go back and see what your critics agreed on. Chances are those places are worth your attention. But don’t just use the feedback you got—apply the feedback you gave, too!
Spotting problems in someone else’s writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like someone walking into the emergency room with a pickaxe in their skull. You don’t need to put them in the X-ray machine to spot the problem. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our pages and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.
Approach it like an assignment:
This seems like backstory—we know they’re hiking, when does something happen?
I count 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.
Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.
Pick one of the problems you critiqued and look for it in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Does a word or sentence pattern stick out?
Writing groups can be frustrating, maddening, time-consuming…and incredibly helpful. For free. So grab your writing buddies and use your words. You’ll all be better writers for it.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She loves her writing group. You could meet your future writing buddies at the Rebirth Your Writing: Craft & Publishing Intensive May 16-20, as well as improving your platform, learning to query, and polishing your writing skills. For essayists, memoirists and novelists!