April 13, 2020 § 2 Comments
We’re furious. We’re also cooped up, quarantined, and a little freaked out. Believe it or not, we will survive. We will thrive. And yes, stories and essays and books will come from these times, just as they come from the big tragedies, the grand comedies, and the prosaic-until-you-dive-deep moments of our lives.
Editors Amy Roost and Alissa Hirshfeld-Flores have focused the natural drive to create from upheaval into a new collection of essays. Fury: Women’s Lived Experience During the Trump Era brings together a diverse community of women who reveal the impact Donald Trump’s behavior, words, and presidency have had on each of them, how each is confronting the problem, and how she is fighting back. Several Brevity bloggers have essays in the collection: Ann V. Klotz, Nina Gaby, Reema Zaman, Michele Sharpe, Melanie Brooks and Allison K Williams.
This week, some of the writers featured in the anthology will blog about how they came to write their essay and their writing process, including sidestepping professional detachment when writing about trauma, using structure to shape memories, how writing in different genres can build an essay, and what it’s like to completely re-work your essay to better fit the whole collection.
We hope you’ll enjoy this special week (and a couple of bonus posts in the next few weeks!), as well as the anthology. And we can’t wait to read the essays coming into the world this year from your own experiences—write them when you have time, when you’re ready, and know that Brevity is grateful to have you as a reader now.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her “adventures in writing” monthly newsletter here.
March 31, 2020 § 42 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.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
This is an update of a November 2016 post.
March 5, 2020 § 7 Comments
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?
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 piracy—copy-pasting and repackaging the text of a book and selling it as your own—happens 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 already—if 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 books—they 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.
March 3, 2020 § 4 Comments
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.
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.
—Yeah here we go for the hundredth time, hand grenade pins in every line—
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
February 27, 2020 § 6 Comments
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?
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 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.
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.
*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.
February 25, 2020 § 18 Comments
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?
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.
*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.
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.
February 20, 2020 § 9 Comments
“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.