A Review of Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts
February 18, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
Imagine sitting at your computer for hours, working on your memoir, confident that you’ve made real progress, then a gremlin sneaks in and whispers in your ear: That isn’t a story. What a terrible beginning. You’re wasting your time. No one will read this.
You could give up or you could turn to Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book.
When I thumb through my copy’s dog-eared pages, I’ll most always find that Williams has something encouraging to say, such as,
If you’re at the ‘I can believe I even started this crazy project stage, revive your enthusiasm by picking a smaller element from the Technical Draft, like dialogue tags or chapter endings. Work through those challenges to feel some progress and get back into the writing groove.
I do this, and, sure enough, my gremlin slumps out the door.
Williams is more than a desktop therapist. She hands you a blueprint to build your memoir from the ground up…in seven drafts. Maybe that sounds like a lot, but chances are you’re going to write seven drafts (at least) anyway. Why not follow a proven plan?
Williams has worked with thousands of writers as a book and writing coach (some resulting in deals with the Big-Five publishers). She also runs Rebirth Your Book and Rebirth Your Writing retreats (in various locations around the world) and is a Brevity staffer.
In Seven Drafts, she writes as if she has pulled up a seat beside you, guiding you as you create a narrative arc, capture readers’ attention and hold it until the end.
Step one is the “Vomit Draft,” which Hemingway famously referred to as the shitty first draft. “Get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled rite,” Williams writes.
Whether you’re meeting Williams for the first time in the pages of this book or you’ve encountered her at a conference, workshop, or online seminar, you’ll discover she’s quick-witted, self-deprecating, and always your cheerleader. In this first draft (whatever you wish to call it), the goal is to express all your ideas without editing, shaping, carving beautiful sentences, drawing plot lines, or pruning. The goal is to get down all the raw material so you can shape it into a story.
Next, Williams helps you work through building your story. In the Story Draft you’ll address key questions: What does the protagonist want? What’s stopping them from succeeding? What happens if the protagonist does not succeed? Williams writes:
Good memoir shares many elements with good fiction: a compelling protagonist, on an interesting journey past powerful obstacles and/or against a fully realized villain, who experiences permanent change within herself, while changing her world.
Next the Character Draft. Here, you’ll develop your protagonist into a well-rounded, intriguing character who engages readers’ imagination and compels them to read on. If you’re successful, readers will be riveted, and they’ll be compelled to turn the page to see if the protagonist succeeds.
Williams reminds us, “To write a truthful memoir, we must speculate—or ask—what happened when we were offstage. We must seek out what we don’t know.” In other words, you’ll probably need to do research. Not only do you need to have your facts straight, but it more information can help you add depth and detail to your characters and plot.
Four more steps: Technical Draft; Personal Copy Edit; Friend Read; and Editor Read. Plus, there’s a chapter on publishing.
In these 342 pages, Williams gives clear, succinct advice with diagrams and tips that work for both memoirists and novelists.
You may ask, isn’t there a Berlin wall between fiction and nonfiction?
Yes…and no. Whether you’re telling your own story or inventing one, storytelling requires plot, inciting events, drama, and resolution. A memoir can be slow and ponderous like a long poem…or it can be a page-turner that engrosses the reader that it’s hard to put down. Think about Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Tara Westover’s Educated, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.
Memoirs and fiction both rely on good storytelling: a compelling protagonist who’s on an interesting journey, facing obstacles and/or a villain, and experiencing major change.
Allison addresses fiction and nonfiction alike in writing about what you don’t know:
Writing what we want to know can be even more powerful than writing what we already know. Research beyond a novelist’s experience opens doors for interesting characters and new plot twists. For memoirists, genuinely considering a question like Why did my mother treat me like that? can allow us to resolve the past as well as creating a complex, nuanced picture of our personal history.
She also helps when the gremlins try to convince you, No one wants to read your story. Others have already written about it. Not true, Williams says. “It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the specific expression of that idea,” she writes. Every person’s story evolves into a unique quest to find meaning and understanding. That’s why you can write on a topic that others have written about, and yours is different.
Some writers say, But I want to write what I want to write the way I want to write it. I’ve done that once before. This time, I’m enlisting Williams, through her book, as my Sherpa. She’s traveled this way before and, from what I can see, knows the way.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity, and a writer and educator. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
How Breadcrumbs Are Making Me a Better Writer
April 26, 2023 § 21 Comments
By Amanda Le Rougetel
They say teachers make the worst students, but I am loving my writing apprenticeship program—and I am top of the class.
True, it’s a class of one and a self-initiated, self-directed training program, but naming it My (big fat) Writing Apprenticeship makes it real and fuels my drive to keep learning my craft.
During my college-teaching days, I taught communication skills across a wide variety of trades—from electricians to plumbers. Their apprenticeship programs focused on the practical application of their learning; therefore, we focused on how to communicate effectively with their clients in real-life situations.
Every day brought new challenges, as the students turned their hard-learned theory into hands-on practice. Learning by doing—that’s what made sense to them, and I think of them often as I pursue my own program.
I launched it in April 2018 by reading Jane Friedman’s seminal text, The Business of Being a Writer. I took copious notes, signed up for Jane’s free newsletter, and began to read her blog. I learned about developing an author brand, using social media to build a platform, preparing the different types of bios authors need (kitchen sink, capsule, social media, and professional), working for exposure versus working for pay, and so much more.
Using the “breadcrumb method”—where one resource leads to another and to another—Jane’s blog introduced me to Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project and her iconic algorithm: “It’s about X as illustrated by Y to be told in a Z.” For example, it’s about learning the craft of writing as illustrated by my apprenticeship program told in a Brevity Blog post. I play with the formula when I am mapping out a piece of writing—so helpful to have something concrete to fill that daunting blank page.
Like any decent program, mine includes electives. I am a long-time reader of the Jungle Red Writers blog: “7 smart and sassy crime fiction writers dish on writing and life. It’s The View. With bodies.” While I don’t aspire to write mysteries, I do read them for pleasure and have learned a lot from the JRW blog about plotting and planning and promoting books—learning that is transferable to my own much shorter pieces. Some of the JRW authors write more than one book a year: an output I see as a masterclass in the discipline of an exacting daily word count.
My program also knows the value of throwing the student into the deep end as a way of testing knowledge and priming confidence. So, I began to co-teach local writing courses in a community classroom. I had to do a lot of research—talk about breadcrumbs!—which led me to Brenda Miller and Dinty W. Moore.
From Brenda, I learned that creative nonfiction is about “telling it slant,” that the hallmark of a CNF essay is the intimacy of the writer’s voice speaking to the reader, and that essays can be, among other things, braided.
From Dinty, I learned about flash CNF and flash fiction, soon arriving at Brevity, then Brevity Blog, where my writing world was split wide open. Oh, the jubilation when I discovered a whole community of people who, like me, prefer to write short!
Over the past 18 months, my program has ramped up, with increased expectations. Sheesh, this program is not for the faint of heart. It demands that I read widely, write daily, and submit consistently. I do all three, and in addition I attend webinars led by Brevity’s own Allison K Williams, as well as by Marion Roach Smith, Jane Friedman and others.
Along the way, I encountered Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula program, a book-focused community of authors who publish their work independently and share their experience in Facebook groups and podcasts. I also joined online writers’ groups and routinely click on the links in authors’ bios to explore their websites and publications. That is how I discovered Becky Tuch’s Lit Mag News on Substack. Last October, I took a four-week flash fiction workshop through Smokelong Quarterly, and in January, I made it through to round two of the NYC Midnight Madness micro fiction contest.
Breadcrumb learning is fun, productive and rewarding. I have had pieces published here on Brevity Blog, on 50-Word Stories, with others forthcoming on Brevity and Five Minute Lit—proving to me that the effort I am putting into my bespoke apprenticeship program is paying off.
But does that mean graduation is in sight?
Well, no. Graduation is not part of this program. Any apprentice worth their salt knows that learning never ends and craft demands that we apply our skills in ever-more challenging contexts. My (big fat) Writing Apprenticeship Program will be running for as long as this student can put finger to keyboard.
A retired college instructor, Amanda Le Rougetel now blogs at Five Years a Writer and teaches courses through Writing as Tool for Transformation. Her focus is flash-length CNF essays, 50-word fiction, and 100-word micro-memoir. Find her on Chill Subs.
Rejection Is (Still) Not Feedback
April 18, 2023 § 12 Comments
By Allison K Williams
Five years ago, I wrote about rejection:
Rejection is not feedback.
Rejection is not feedback.
No really. Rejection. Is not. Feedback.
As writers submitting our work, we often get mad at ourselves and the process when our work is rejected. It’s easy to feel they thought my work was terrible, or I’m a bad writer, or I’ll never be any good.
None of those things can be determined from any single rejection.
The process of reading work for publication is not the process of reading to give feedback. When journal editors read, yes, they are evaluating the overall quality of the work. But they’re also asking, Does this fit our mission? Do I personally like it? Did we already accept something similar last week? They are assessing where the work fits in the overall structure of the magazine and its mission. A piece that isn’t the right fit must be let go, regardless of how good it is.
Our job as writers is to display our work to its best advantage, with skilled craft and professional format on the page. To enlist friends and fellow writers and teachers and mentors to give us constructive criticism, and to incorporate the notes that help us write the best essay or story or book we can. To do many drafts until we truly feel a piece is ready to send out. And that’s where our control stops. Like owning a clothing store, we can’t make the customer want our particular sweater–we can only be ready with an excellent sweater when they walk in, or a rack of options we’ve prepared to appeal to a selection of shoppers. We must focus on knowing our buyers, reading their journals, finding out about their taste and style and mission and what else they recently bought–not agonizing about why one person didn’t want one thing.
Last year, I wrote about rejection:
Author after author asks on Twitter, in writing groups and workshops—why can’t they just say what’s wrong? Make a checkbox or a copy-paste? At least tell me, is it the writing or the story or what? It would take thirty seconds!
…[Editors and Agents] don’t actually know what’s wrong with your book. They only know where they lost interest in the first pages. Maybe they don’t want to spend time with the hero. But if that problem gets solved on page 50, then “Your hero is unlikeable” could send an author into a long and fruitless revision, when the feedback they really needed was “Cut pages 1–49.”
What I wrote is still true. But what’s even truer is that very often, an essay rejection isn’t based on your actual quality of writing. Reading hundreds of essays sent in for workshops, working with clients, I’ve noticed key elements that are self-sabotaging many essays. None of them is bad writing. Every one of them can be fixed.
- Topics that aren’t new, or lack cultural relevance. If your work engages with an issue or topic that’s a hot conversation now (yes, even literary essays!), you’re more likely to catch an editor’s eye. This doesn’t mean you have to write about the latest hashtag. But part of what made The Crane Wife go viral was that women’s sense of doing all the emotional labor within relationships had become a larger conversation.
- An essay that’s a remembrance or a eulogy. Writing to honor your dead is a beautiful and important practice. It may not result in publishable work. Share it with your family, with the deceased’s other loved ones, on your blog or newsletter. But the dead lack meaning to those who didn’t know them. Your larger emotional context is rarely visible to the reader.
- Openings that give away the ending, or heavily foreshadow. Once you’ve told the reader what it’s all about with something like, “I had no idea this would be the worst day of my life,” they lean back. They stop engaging and start skimming, because they feel like they know what’s coming. Instead, start with a situation, mood or action that’s the opposite of the ending, or at least very different, so the essay takes the reader through change.
- Endings that wrap up with a tidy little bow or an explained moral. For literary work, allow the reader to deduce their own meaning from the cumulative effect of the essay without telling them what you meant. End with an image, or a thought that suggests expansion of the primary idea. For commercial work, your essay needs a tidy little bow–but it’s still not “and that’s what I learned from this whole experience.”
Submitting work often feels like dropping our words into a black hole. But editors often discuss on social media what they’re seeking. Reading the magazine you want to appear in is research, too. Rejection isn’t feedback–but as your skill and ease with writing develop, you’ll be able to give yourself the feedback you need.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts. Want to find out more about why your work is being rejected (and what to do about it!) Join her for the CRAFT TALKS webinar, Moving From Rejection to Publication April 26th at 2PM Eastern time (registrants also get the replay).
Who Needs Your Words?
March 14, 2023 § 4 Comments
The joyful secret of building audience
By Allison K Williams
Memoirs sell because the writing is strong, the story engaging, and there’s an audience who wants to read this book. Agents and publishers determine the first two from your query and pages. Proving an audience exists is up to you.
Most memoirs sell with proposals. Your proposal shares the plan and purpose of your book, shows you’re organized and professional, demonstrates your writing skill, and most importantly, establishes that an audience exists and you can reach them. Before you sell the book, your proposal outlines your aspirations—who needs your words? Where are they and how can you be there? When the book is sold, your proposal guides the publisher’s PR department and helps them understand how to sell the book. If you self-publish or work with a small press, the proposal is your marketing plan.
Identifying an audience not only helps your book sell, it helps you write without being alone. Participating in the Reddit forum or industry mailing list for your topic helps determine what material is crucial and what to leave out. Guesting on podcasts and visiting support groups means practicing delivering your message effectively—which makes your writing better. After you’ve told that anecdote six times, you’ll know how to ramp up tension and where the punchline is.
Literary audiences are built on education. Your MFA cohort, fellow workshop participants, even the other writers in the webinar chat are all part of your audience. They’ll be your colleagues and your readers as you seek publication in literary venues and gain recognition, like Pushcart Prizes, Best American Essays mentions or inclusion, and acceptance at prestigious workshops and residencies.
Commercial audiences grow through mass media publication and your mailing list, enhanced by social media—because social media is where you can talk at anyone you want for free. Ideally, your commercial platform will eventually include public speaking and being recognized as an expert.
My own audience mixes literary and commercial. In 2012, I saved up to attend Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, where I met Dinty W. Moore. For five years, I spent a month each year sending one submission a day to literary venues. I’ve blogged for Brevity for ten years (and counting!) and built my social media presence by quoting my own blogs, interacting with other writers, and championing their work. Building my audience taught me about the book they needed, so I wrote it.
As you meet your audience and grow to love them, start thinking about defining them. Try this Mad Libs:
[Audience demographic] has [population]. They have [problem] caused by [experience]. My book addresses this with [help for reader]. I will reach/am connected to these readers [in Publication] or [with Action].
In the proposal that sold Seven Drafts, I summed up one audience like this:
Some beginning writers are genuinely unable to distinguish their own work from a finished book; many more lack strong critique groups, beta readers, MFAs and/or buckets of cash for workshops and professional editing…
These writers are ready to work, and need help with both a big-picture understanding of the editing process, and specific, actionable steps for revision. Feeling overwhelmed and disorganized, they want and need an encouraging guide.
And included subscription numbers for the writing magazines where I’ve published craft articles.
Is it fair that you have to do your own demographic research and write it up nicely? Is it fair that memoirists must identify an audience and start interacting with those people long before their book is finished?
Is it fair that you get to put your thoughts into words and share them with the world while others without the ability to write or desire to put themselves forward must suffer alone?
But here’s the joyful secret—you’re already building audience! You’re meeting them in the comments on this blog. You’re listening to your future blurbers on AWP panels. Enjoyed a webinar? Post a couple of quotes from it on social media and tag the teacher. Then review their book. Post the review on your social media and repost on the publication anniversary. Without stalking, gently insinuate yourself into their mental list of “people who support my work,” and they’ll be more likely to support yours.
Building an audience fervent and large enough to support publication is time-consuming. Identifying specific groups who need your words makes it faster. Your other option is to write like a National Book Award winner. Which of these takes the least time and effort depends on the author.
Either way, build your writing career on thoughtful, compelling writing that tells stories your audience desperately needs to hear. Stories you know they need, because you talked to them. As Sean Thomas Dougherty writes:
Because right now there is someone
Out there with
a wound in the exact shape
of your words.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Writing your memoir proposal? Get it done in a weekend, with professional guidance and without the agony. April 1-2, replay available. Find out more about Memoir Proposal Bootcamp here.
AWP: All Writers Pining (to be there)
March 9, 2023 § 32 Comments
Another year, another AWP
By Allison K Williams
Another AWP, another year of watching AWP happen on social media. Writer friends and writer acquaintances are coordinating meet-ups and announcing their readings. Editors I admire are posting about their panels, and how their panels went. Everything is liminal. Or intersectional. Or intersectionally liminal. In a few days, countless editors, writers and journal staffers will depart the giant conference in Seattle, heading back to their home institutions with swag bags, connections and newly autographed books.
But even if we’re not meandering the aisles of the giant book fair, awkwardly avoiding eye contact with big-deal writers we admire (we don’t want to look like fangirls) or hoping the staff of the magazine that just published our work will spontaneously recognize us (because introducing ourselves might be bragging), we’re still in this together. So if like me, you’re at home watching the literary world scroll by, you can still recreate the AWP experience.
First, you’ll need wine. Pour half a plastic cup of unfortunately-sharp white, and sip politely (hide those winces!) as you pull from your shelves every literary journal, small-press book, and poetry collection. Arrange the books on your dining-room table in a pleasing display. Rearrange three times. Settle on the original arrangement—it should be about the work.
Find the last free tote bag you got from a conference, NPR funding drive, or those Girl Scouts at the Super Walmart when you bought six boxes of Thin Mints. Fill the bag with twelve bookmarks, two souvenir magnets, five pens bearing the names of businesses you don’t remember patronizing, and some sticky notes. Print out the first fifty pages of your newest manuscript, just in case, and slip it into your tote bag while reciting your elevator pitch like a mantra.
Using Google Images, download photos of Dinty W. Moore, Terese Mailhot, Sue William Silverman, Ronit Plank, Lindsay Wong, the editor of any literary magazine you’ve ever wanted to be published in, and all your writer friends on Facebook. Create a slideshow, setting the time to 1 second per photo. As the pictures flash, guess who each person is. Each time you get one right, choose a book from your pleasing display and put it in your tote bag. Each time you get one wrong, practice saying, “It’s so great to see you! How is your work going?” and estimate how many minutes of conversation it would take to identify the person you’re talking to and whether you have in fact met before.
Scroll through Twitter, liking the tweets and following anyone using the #AWP23 hashtag. Retweet anything that makes you smile wryly.
Browse the books in your pleasing display and ask yourself of each one: Do I know this author personally? If so, why did they only sign their name on the flyleaf and not something that says how great I am and how much they can’t wait to be beside me on the bestseller list?
Turn the lights down. Put on a smooth jazz playlist. Go to that YouTube video of the coffee shop sounds and turn it all the way up. Pour yourself a beverage you actually like and call a writer you met anywhere last year, on speakerphone. Count how many times one of you says, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” As you converse, look through your display for any journals in which that writer’s work appears and add them to your tote bag. When you hang up, flee to the bathroom, lock yourself in and look through your tote bag journals. Find a piece so powerful, all you can do is lean your forehead against the coolness of the wall and wish you had written it, even though you have never even contemplated making a poem in Sapphics.
The next morning, visit the nearest coffee shop and order your usual. Go to Brevity’s list of craft essays and read six of them. Every time you find the word “ruminate,” drink. Scan the coffee shop. Does anyone look like they might be a writer? See if you can work up an excuse to talk to them without looking like a doofus. If they refuse to start a conversation, slink away, then drink. If they chat enthusiastically but are not a writer after all, drink. If you can’t figure out how to end the conversation gracefully, drink. Eventually you can excuse yourself to pee.
Go back home on foot. Enjoy the blissful silence. Leaf through the last few books in your table display and just take anything you want. Look at the Acknowledgements and start writing down agent names. One of them’s gotta be right for you. Carry the tote bag around your house for the next two days until you set it down to pick up something else and forget where you’ve left it. Gently mourn.
When you trip over the bag tomorrow, find the poem you loved in the bathroom and read it again. Imagine the writer you love most in the world feeling that way about your work. Imagine AWP happening in your house, and know that it kind of is, that you are a ‘real’ writer, that you’re allowed to talk to any author you want via tweets or emails or handwritten cards, that it doesn’t matter whether or not they talk back. Know that you’re part of this world, no matter where you are.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Need a writing event at home? Join her for Memoir Proposal Bootcamp April 1-2. Skip the struggle and write most or all of your proposal in a weekend with professional guidance and group support. More info/register here.
Facts Create Feelings: World-Building in Memoir
February 16, 2023 § 11 Comments
Make readers cry for you, not with you.
By Allison K Williams
I always write down the notes. When it’s my turn for workshop feedback, no matter how much I disagree, no matter whether I put “Stupidhead said…” before a note that seems irrelevant, I write every single critique in my notebook. I learned this as an actor, when a director told me, “Write down all the notes, or you won’t remember the note, you’ll only remember how you felt when you got the note.” Examining my notebook a few days later, when my writerly feelings have faded, I’m able to dig into the actual notes and find their true usefulness.
I think that person is wrong…but two other people had problems with the same scene. What really needs revising?
“Consider writing this totally different scene I dreamed up for you.” No thank you, but I do need to show my dad in a different light. What about…
Writing memoir is a way of giving feedback to ourselves, on our journey and our character. How was that performance? Did the protagonist make us cry while we watched them fight for something better? Or did we experience page after page of unbroken misery, feeling sorry for them and wondering why they didn’t fix their life?
As writers, we are both performer and director. It’s very hard to genuinely critique our own work—our feelings are so tightly connected to the facts. But to improve our writing to a publishable level, we have to move past how we felt to what happened. Rather than merely unearthing our trauma and pain on the page, making it clear whose fault that all was, we must step back and show the context.
World-building isn’t just for fantasy and science fiction. Memoir also needs that creation of the larger surroundings. Our world-building is showing the reasons our villains acted the way they did, the cultural environment that made unequivocally bad behavior seem tolerable, and the good and normal times that kept us from leaving unpleasant relationships or situations. As writers, that means not beginning scenes with “My mother was about to hurt me again.” (OK, fine, we can skip ahead a few pages!) As people, that means showing the hope that kept us trying before we got out.
Show the reader the days you enjoyed hanging out with your abuser, and they’ll be shocked with you when the abuser shows another face. Loving actions from a parent lull the reader into thinking, Maybe this time will be different, just as you did.
As the writer, honestly portraying the good times also allows ourselves grace for not leaving the situation earlier, not standing up for ourselves. We can remember and show why we justified that other person’s actions or tolerated a terrible relationship. Humans are mammals, and mammals respond strongly to unpredictable rewards. Give a dolphin the treat every time, and the trick gets sloppier and sloppier. They’ll do the minimum. Random treats make mammals do their best and keep trying. Slot machines pay out just enough for gamblers to keep feeding in quarters. Your terrible boyfriend apologized just enough to keep you coming back. Your mom gave just enough love to keep you desperate to please her.
Show why the people who hurt you behaved as they did. Genuinely interrogate your antagonists’ history and beliefs, and give them credence on the page. What they were fighting, what they hoped for and lost. Your book will be better for watching the “bad guys” betray themselves even when they try to be good.
But pain and trauma stick out in our memories, much easier to access than the “reasonably OK” interludes. How do we get to the good times?
By noting the facts instead of our feelings.
Write down the negative events in all their awfulness…but in the next draft, move past what you felt. Move past how terrible the antagonist was. Write what happened. What you physically experienced—not just actions you took or that were taken against you, but what you smelled when you fought with your dad in the kitchen. The temperature of the diner, the slight greasiness of the table, the taste of the cheese fries when you said, “I want a divorce.” The music throbbing from someone else’s car at a stoplight when you realized you had to leave home.
Expanding outward beyond the emotional content of a scene, often through sensory writing exercises, helps us recall details that may have blurred into the general trauma of the experience. Sharing those sensory details on the page helps the reader feel the pain with us, rather than watching our pain and feeling pity. “Sucks that happened to you!” doesn’t help them understand your experience—or change their own life after sharing your journey.
Constant trauma on the page diminishes its own impact. The reader begins to disassociate from the writing, because they don’t want to be hurt, either. But watching the good parts of life, feeling cautiously optimistic with the narrator, builds tension. Watching your hope interrupted is far more powerful than trudging through a pit of despair. You don’t need the readers’ pity for your tears—make them cry for you instead.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Writing memoir…cautiously? Join her for Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma & Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings Feb 27th with Jane Friedman. Find out more/register here.
The Power of Mad Libs
February 8, 2023 § 20 Comments
Tell them what to write without telling them what to write.
By Allison K Williams
You’ve seen it if you’ve written for the Brevity Blog and I was your editor. Or if I’ve ever live-edited your work in a workshop, or if I’ve been lucky enough to work with you as a client: Mad Libs.
Remember that fill-in-the-blanks game we played at parties and in the car? A flip-pad of short “stories” missing key words. Blank lines labeled “adjective,” “noun,” and “adverb” cued the leader to ask the group for words to fill in (and taught us all the parts of speech). After the list of words was written in, the text was read aloud, the inappropriateness of most words inspiring general hilarity. Invented by Leonard Stern and Roger Price, the game is still played in cars, at camp, and at very dorky parties. The books now even include pages with word lists before the stories, so you can play Mad Libs solo (for those of us too dorky even for dork parties).
But Mad Libs have a greater power for writers: by making our own blanks, we skip the potholes of agonizing over words or letting our muse vanish down an internet-research rabbit hole.
Don’t run to the internet to check the weather for that chapter opening. Just type NEED WEATHER JAN 14 1968 and keep going with the story. Don’t worry about your memory vs. your mom’s—write your version of what happened and add GET MOM’S POV AND USE JUXTAPOSITION OF KITCHEN KNIVES TO CONNECT TIMELINES. Come back later, when you’re in a research phase instead of a writing phase, and fill in what you skipped, instead of breaking your creative flow by digging out the photo albums or worrying you’ve mischaracterized a living relative.
For writers creating rapidly for copywriting purposes, to meet an assigned deadline, or to churn out quality genre fiction as fast as readers can click Kindle Unlimited, Mad Libs is plotting on a supreme scale. Where your outline might follow the Hero’s Journey or Save The Cat!, your Mad Libs can usher you through your plot moment by moment:
HERO CONFRONTS VILLAIN IN SIGNIFICANT LOCATION, VILLAIN REVEALS SECRET THAT CONNECTS THEM.
Subsequent books can translate that Mad Libs moment to “Luke, I am your father” in the Cloud City’s central airshaft or Dani Shapiro in her office, confronting her DNA report showing she’s not her father’s biological daughter.
For editors, creating Mad Libs blanks for your author to fill in allows very prescriptive editing without telling them what to write. You get to point out very specifically what’s missing on the page; the author decides how to fill the hole. Instead of spending precious time worrying how to ask the exact right question that gets the author to write what you know the story needs, without hurting their feelings or sounding dictatorial, give them a Mad Libs. I type it in the document itself, not in the comments, with the combination of colored text and all caps standing out as not their words.
TRANSITION OUT OF PERSONAL ANECDOTE BACK TO MAIN POINT
WEAVE BACK IN TWO PERSONAL APPEARANCE DETAILS HERE PULL STUFF FROM DELETED FIRST PARAGRAPH
BALANCE TRAUMATIC SCENE BY ADDING A NICE MOM MOMENT HERE SHE BAKED COOKIES OR BUTTONED YOUR COAT OR WHATEVER
(Authors I’ve worked with, feel free to push back in the comments if you actually hate this and find it stifles your creativity!)
Questions and comments still have their place, of course. Sometimes the process of thinking through an answer or responding to confusion is what the writer needs. But for work that needs to be done quickly—or parts of a manuscript that can be done quickly in the context of a long, difficult revision—it can be a relief to just follow instructions. Paradoxically, the more specific the instructions, the easier it is for the writer to interpret and fill in the “blank” in their own unique way. Often, the instinctive reaction of “No, I don’t need to write that—I need to write this other thing!” is itself a powerful burst of creativity. Pushing back and being pushed forward both bring us closer to the words we need to write.
I use Mad Libs for writing copy, for editing other people’s books, for writing my own articles. I even use it for Brevity blogs, which I generally write in an hour. The simpler and more obvious the blanks, the better the springboard to unique, inspired writing. And I think you’ll enjoy it, too. Use Mad Libs to vault over research, to point out what your fellow writer needs without telling them what to write, to crank out copy over and over again. I’ll be (present-tense verb) you from (place), waiting to see what you (verb).
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the editor of books published by Penguin Random House, Mantle, Knopf, Hachette and many more. Not completely appalled by her editing style? Find out about Project Novel, an MFA year crammed into eight weeks. Or just join the mailing list.
Starting Your Own Retreat: How Hard Can It Be?
January 24, 2023 § 14 Comments
I guess that guest didn’t hate me after all.
By Allison K Williams
Writers often thrive in new places—residencies and retreats that allow us to expand our ideas and make big progress outside the demands of daily life. But residencies are often competitive and retreats expensive. After eyeing promising opportunities that may be distant, outside your childcare capacity, or require three references (on paper! In the mail!) you might ask, Should I just lead my own retreat? How hard can it be? You’d get to pick convenient dates, cover your own travel, maybe even profit.
After leading sell-out retreats online and off, I can say it’s hard the first time, and new challenges arise from new locations and types of event. But repeat events become a checklist of specific tasks I know I can accomplish. Whether in Tuscany or onboard the Queen Mary 2, I’m going to teach how to finish books and write better, addressing the experience level and needs of every writer present. Most new challenges are logistical.
Going virtual? The new challenge is “make it feel like a real retreat,” and meeting it means gift boxes, responsiveness outside retreat hours, and clear guidelines for participants to plan their time.
New venue in Costa Rica? “Communicate serious dietary needs to the on-site chef in my very weak Spanish.” Hello, Google Translate and a poster of guest pictures clearly marked Vegana, Sin Gluten, and Sin Alcohol.
New itinerary in Portugal? “Schedule tour bus and trains.” Doable with a TaskRabbit helper in Porto, a guide in Coimbra, and the national train system website.
Retreat leadership has evolved from hoping I’d break even and enjoy the experience, into a regular income. It’s truly amazing to nurture artistic growth and exploration in writers who happily contribute to my livelihood. Often, I’m lucky to have Brevity’s editor in chief Dinty W. Moore as co-teacher, which means not only sharing the emotional load but learning new elements of writing myself, in the classes he leads.
Could you create a retreat?
Yes! Even if you start small, perhaps an AirBnB weekend with one writing friend, asserting time for the joy of writing feels great.
But should you create a retreat/workshop/event that other writers pay you for?
Yes, if you keep two main principles in mind.
1) Find the right audience. It’s much easier to market to a specific, defined participant you want to serve. When I created Rebirth Your Book, most retreats didn’t focus on whole-book work. When Dinty and I created our Virtual Intensives, most writing workshops didn’t offer an affordable week focused on one topic.
Are you drawn to help authors fill in the gaps to make their book publishable, or generate new material? Do you want to only offer writing, or explore a new culture, a complementary artistic process, or yoga? Got a great location you want to share, or are you more comfortable over Zoom? As you define your offering, narrow your audience. Instead of “anyone who has a week off and wants to go to Provence,” identify an immediate, pressing problem you will help your guests solve. Market your retreat to people who have that problem badly enough to make time, find the cash, and get there. Be ready to deliver 100%—after their time with you, their problem should be solved.
2) Remember that you aren’t a participant. Retreats are rarely “fun” for the leader. They’re often joyful, meaningful, and profitable, but come with daily, constant responsibility. Having a great time on a mountain hike? Make sure you’ve spent a few minutes walking and talking beside each guest. Check in with the guy who was working through a new idea after dinner—how does he feel about it this morning? Is the lady who needed to reach her family for an emergency able to focus on her writing or does she need some personal time?
Retreats demand rigid flexibility. You must create a strong frame within which absolutely anything might happen. Where you’re truly open to accommodating what each guest needs, even if what they need isn’t what you planned. My first-ever retreat, one writer didn’t want to stay in the venue after all, instead commuting from a hotel and eating on her own. I tamped down my fears and made myself available for porch talks and reading pages on her schedule. She later thanked me for “supporting the retreat she needed to have.”
At another retreat, a writer outlined ideas, but didn’t write much at all. I worried he secretly hated me, was sorry he’d paid me, had only tagged along to be with his friend. But two years later, he booked another retreat, so I guess it didn’t suck—and it’ll be my job again to support the retreat he needs to have.
Sharing what you love in a fabulous location with happy guests is truly marvelous. Taking home a paycheck (and a bit of paid vacation) is the icing on top. With planning, confidence, and clear expectations, you can make great retreats happen—whether it’s just you and a friend, or a fellowship of inspired, productive writers. Whether you break even or make bank, our true profit comes from experience. Our true leadership is taking someone’s hand and asking, “What do you see? Show it to me.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager, and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Her retreats take place around the world and online, and she’s offering a webinar about leading your own sell-out retreats (and making a real income from meaningful events) Feb 4th. Find out more/register here.
I’d Rather Work for Free
November 29, 2022 § 24 Comments
“Platform” and “literary citizenship” are the same behavior with different hats.
By Allison K Williams
I blogged a couple weeks ago about writing technique. How it’s valuable for artists to explore their craft and their tools in the company of other artists in the same stage of development. I mentioned these learning opportunities are rare for writers: we have plenty of write-your-feelings workshops and respond-to-pages workshops, but not much that goes past schooldays-grammar into building strong sentences and paragraphs. One commenter thought I’d missed the mark–she felt her K-12 education had been rigorous and adult writing classes she’d taken had covered plenty of technique. She also jabbed
But then I got to the bottom and see the whole essay was really a presale for your own classes here.
It hurts because it’s true. I do write blogs here and elsewhere to advertise my classes. I write long posts in Facebook writer’s groups where I’ve personally made the rule “anyone advertising must give immediately useful information; group members should benefit from your post even if they never click the link to explore your services.” I tweet threads breaking down editorial concepts or writing craft elements, then mention relevant webinars. I host The Writers Bridge, a free biweekly series on author platform, and yes, I mention my current offering in the emails with the Zoom links.
One of the things that attracted an agent and a publisher for my book, Seven Drafts, was proving through social media engagement and mailing list numbers that people think I’m an expert. Why do they think that? Because I’ve spent years giving away advice, and I still do. Last year, on a blog about freelance editing, a commenter asked
…do you give free advice online for writers? If so, my question is—do you think it is worth your time and effort?
I responded in part,
I do write blogs and participate in FB groups, and that way writers see the quality of the information I can offer.
That’s how we become experts. People try our free advice; if it resonates, if it makes their life or their work better, they come back for more. Memoirist Ashleigh Renard shows up on social media every day answering every direct message she receives. Her advice helps people. It also lets her know exactly what her audience needs. Love her free marriage counseling? Get some more at her retreat in Tulum!
We stay experts by making our free advice part of our income flow. I might spend an hour writing a blog, or three hours editing other authors’ work (free editing for them!) for the Brevity blog, or five hours preparing and running a Writers Bridge episode. Each time, I sacrifice billable hours for volunteer hours. Creating a new webinar–marketing copy, lesson plan, slides, workbook, execution, follow-up Q&A–is 16-18 hours. Attendees pay $15-25. They say things like “I got more out of this than a semester at my MFA!” and I can deliver that quality for $25 because a few hundred people show up. How do I get a few hundred people? By giving free advice to twenty thousand.
When I was a street performer, we delivered a theatre-quality show with acrobatics, aerial silks, duo trapeze, fire-eating, whip-cracking, audience participation and comedy. After each show, we passed the hat. Our job was to deliver a show so impressive, so captivating, that even though the entire audience could scatter without paying and suffer absolutely no penalties, they would choose to stand in line to hand us money. Plenty of people watched our show without paying. Some of them were cheap. Some of them were unhoused, or in hard times. Some of them shook our hands and apologized for not giving, and we said, “We’re just glad to have you at the show!”
We meant it.
Yes, we were working for money. Yes, it was our real job, and we needed people to pay us. But the joy of genuine communion with the crowd, of sharing regardless of profit, was part of what made the show worth seeing. The great artistic paradox is that the more you write, or paint, or dance, for sheer love of the work, the more monetary reward you’ll see…as long as you’re strategic.
As a trapeze artist, I said it in the hat pass: “Our greatest gift is your smiles, your laughter, and your applause. Unfortunately, we can’t go to our landlord at the end of the month and go”–clapping–“Good apartment man! Good apartment! Go power bill!” I’d say that the people who can pay subsidize the people who can’t, but everyone gets to see the show. I watched people look around, assess how many people were present, and pull out a ten or a twenty instead of a five.
In my editing and teaching career, I rarely say it out loud: Writers who pay me $3595 for a program or $4495 for a retreat subsidize every free blog post. Writers who buy an $1850 edit or a $685 book proposal evaluation have subsidized 50+ episodes of The Writers Bridge. I have privilege from income, whiteness, lack of children, and a supportive spouse, subsidizing my ability to lie in bed for an hour dispensing writing advice on social media and answering blog comments. I’ve made the calculation: I’d rather charge for value delivered than hours spent. That means doing about 1/3 of my total work hours for free, and pricing paid hours high enough to stay joyful and excited about volunteering. And I’ve learned that part of not feeling guilty about charging high prices (or advertising!) is not bothering to work for cheap–just happily working for free.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. OH LOOK SHE’S ALSO SELLING SOMETHING: Just cranked through NaNoWriMo? At the end of your draft and unsure what’s next? Please join her for the webinar Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Book December 14th. It’s $25. If you prefer to track down and print out every blog Allison’s ever written about story & structure, put them in a binder and work from there, it’s free!