January 14, 2021 § 10 Comments
Years ago, I sat backstage at a Renaissance Festival, hot and sweaty after eating fire in the Florida sun. (What really sucks? Fire is harder to see in bright light, so I’d endangered my life to look less impressive than usual.) My partner and I were talking contracts with a more experienced performer (this guy). We were going to ask for more money. I said doubtfully, “I know the management is pretty cheap, but I think we’re worth it?”
Our wiser friend replied, “Nobody gets what they’re worth. You get what you negotiate.”
That saying stuck with me. Bad deals come from bad negotiation—not one’s inherent worth. Good deals reflect the writer and their agent’s negotiating skills as much as the quality of the book. (Good writing gets you in the door; good deals come from negotiation).
For writers, negotiating with a publisher can feel like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But a publishing contract isn’t a gift, it’s a deal. Professional, courteous negotiation doesn’t upset legitimate businesspeople. Anyone getting shirty when you ask for explanations or push back on terms is waving a huge red flag. Trust is for your mother. (Or not, as per many memoirs.)
When you receive your publishing contract, what can you (or your agent) negotiate?
Royalties. Standard royalties are 10-15%. Especially if your advance is smaller, you may be able to do better, perhaps as much as 25% on print books. Even if they won’t shift on print, you could get a higher percentage on ebooks. The standard is 25%, but I’ve seen authors get as much as 50%.
Royalties can also include an “escalator” clause: sell more books, get more money. I arranged an escalator clause for one of the first plays I published: my royalties jumped 5% every 5000 copies sold, topping out at 25%. When I signed, it was an ambitious dream. Twenty years later, the play is still in print.
Subsidiary Rights. Publishers hope to buy worldwide rights, then sell your book to foreign publishers, for which you get royalties. But if your agent sells those rights (or you do, but that’s a longer shot), you’ll deal directly with the overseas publisher and keep a chunk of middleman money. If your publisher retains foreign rights, negotiate for an expiration date. If they have bigger-deal books to focus on and yours goes unsold, you’ll want those rights back for when the opportunity arises to sell them yourself.
You may not be able to keep your audio rights, but you could get the right to audition or even a guaranteed right to be the narrator. (Many authors are terrible narrators; choose wisely!) Audio books could also be at higher royalties than print.
Film rights should always be retained (you never know!). All rights “not named” should be reserved for you, and that’s worth fighting for. Maybe your book will never be a calendar…but it might.
Marketing. In these days of mostly author-driven publicity, it’s more important than ever to get free print and electronic copies. Find out if the publisher uses NetGalley for bloggers, reviewers and the media—can you give your PR list? If you speak at conferences or events, how many copies can you buy for resale, and at what price? First-time authors are unlikely to get cover approval, but you can ask for input.
Process. How long does the publisher have for editorial feedback? What are your deadlines? When will you do last-minute corrections, and will they bill you past a certain number of errors?
Options. Do they have first dibs on the next book you write? If there’s a non-compete clause, negotiate to cover only books “substantially similar and directly competitive,” or you might find yourself unable to sell your next book to another publisher or even self-publish.
Most contracts have flexibility, and it’s always worth negotiating for a better deal. All contracts have unchangeable language about definitions and jurisdiction, but boilerplate rights and financial terms are often sweeping. Like pricing your house 30% above market: maybe someone will pull up with a dump truck full of cash, or maybe you’ll negotiate. Most clauses about money, editing, the actual publishing process, marketing and timelines can be tweaked, or at the very least, fully explained.
If you’re working with a hybrid press, that’s not a publishing deal. You are purchasing a package of services. No matter what they tell you, the costs of publishing your book and their expected minimum profit come from your money. An offer of 50% “royalties” means “As you work to sell your book, we will claim an additional half of your profits.” Make sure your contract specifies what they provide in return. Keep all subsidiary rights. They aren’t going to sell them for you, and if a movie deal drops in your lap, well, you already paid the publisher.
If you’re un-agented, you can negotiate yourself, hire a literary-specific attorney, or take advantage of the Author’s Guild’s legal review services for members (a total bargain! Join here). But you’re allowed to negotiate. You’re not rude or pushy or showing ignorance by asking for an explanation, doing some research and/or talking to your agent, and proposing a better deal. Even after negotiation, you may not get what you’re worth.
Then again? You might get more.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her Friday January 22nd for This Is the Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal Setting for Your 2021 Writing Life in which she will not once say “write every day.”
December 31, 2020 § 27 Comments
2017 2020? Yeah, this post I wrote three years ago is STILL ASTOUNDINGLY RELEVANT. You know that feeling of low-grade background stress you’ve sustained for nearly four years, ramping up a level each year? You’re not alone, fellow writer.
So 2020 was a dumpster on fire while swept away in a flood, yes, but how was your writing? Because now is a great time to consider what you did. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and couldn’t. Let’s genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments, together.
Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?
Get a piece accepted? Submit to places you want to be accepted?
Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?
Make it to an online workshop or reading or write-in?
Read a book you really loved? Or one that taught you something about writing? Tried some exercises? Researched something new?
They all count.
Bask in the feeling of accomplishment. If you’re a journal-keeper, make some notes about what felt great to get done, and why it worked to do it that way. Congratulations!
When you’re done, look ahead. Sure, a year is an arbitrary designation–maybe you operate on some sort of fiscal year, or you’re still a fan of the Julian calendar, or your new year starts February 12th. But it’s a good time to reassess, because other writers are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck your local independent bookstore (who likely offer curbside pick-up).
Make a little list–not too many things or it just gets overwhelming–of your writing plans. Think about the classic “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.
- Specific like “I want to be published in Brevity” (and we hope you do) rather than “I want to be a published author” which is a bit wide-open.
- That one’s Measurable–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, or maybe you got a different venue for your essay and we lost out.
- Attainable is also key. I’m not aiming for the Nobel Prize quite yet, plus I think someone Swedish has to nominate me. Maybe start with “meet more Swedes.”
- And really, winning a Nobel isn’t especially Relevant to what I want to be writing.
- Timely can be a deadline, or a number or pattern of attempts (10 tries, quarterly submissions, etc), so the goal starts with an action you can take.
Here’s what I’m thinking about:
What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to finish a novel, because I care about writing YA, and I think it looks better to give writing advice when I’m walking the walk. You?
Do you need help to be this kind of writer? I need to locate a couple of beta readers who haven’t read the previous incarnations so they can come in fresh. What help do you need?
What big project do you want to finish? That book, and to host a writing retreat in Costa Rica or Italy, both delayed from last year. How are you going to do that? They’re both check-off-able tasks: chapter by chapter, email by email–“write a book” would be as nebulous and difficult as “lead a retreat.” One project is creative and the other’s business, but I’ll approach both with a defined process. And allow myself grace when elements I can’t control hinder my progress. What’s your big project?
What do you want to read? More “challenging” books and less comfort re-reads. How can you make that happen? Order Hilary Mantel’s latest and dive in! What can you not wait to read?
What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’d like to spend a little less phone-on-sofa time. You?
It’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in our brains. It’s hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what we can actually accomplish. Like tapas or sushi: order all at once, and you’re likely to have more food than anyone can finish. But grab the thing you love best first, enjoy it, and then order the next thing you have room for, and the next. One dish at a time. One step on a goal. And no, you do not have to order vegetables first. Choose the goal you love the most, not the obligation.
Got any questions you’re mulling over for 2021’s writing year? Ask us what you’re asking yourself. Tell us what you did–and what you’re going to do next.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. January 22nd, she’ll be leading the webinar This Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal-Setting and Project-Planning for Writers. It’s a steal at $25–sign up here!
December 17, 2020 § 12 Comments
It’s hard to judge the quality of our own work. Most of our friends are more supportive than critical—thank goodness! But in order to figure out if our own writing belongs in the publication venue we admire, we need to step back and take a long hard look. Since it’s hard to judge your own work, start by judging someone else’s.
What’s the last great thing you read in the place you want to be published? Ideally, you’re already reading books from that publishing imprint, or issues of that magazine, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow.
That wow is the first step towards judging our own writing—and improving it.
Go beyond the wow, and think analytically. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Being able to see those tools at work is a sign your own writing ability is getting closer to what you’re reading.
Check out those transitions.
Love that she told that whole story in just 700 words.
The way that structure looped around was so unexpected and satisfying.
OK, it’s simple, but it’s so fun!
I’d never have thought to put those two parts of the story next to each other, but it makes them both better.
It’s so well-told – not a wasted word.
Take a look at your own recent work. Are you using those same (or similar) tools in your writing? Which ones are popping up through instinct, and which do you actively employ? Think about the essays, stories, articles or chapters you’ve most enjoyed writing: are you covering similar dramatic ground to the already-published pieces? If not, is there a topic or experience you could investigate in your work?
When you can regularly identify writing tools and techniques, the next step is employing those techniques in your own work. Go back and revise, choosing a craft element you admire from the published piece and consciously employing it in your next draft. Another great way to practice and internalize writing techniques is by copying and changing: follow the sentence structure and format of a page or two from a writer you love. Change the nouns, verbs and descriptions to your own, but see what making sentences with their rhythm feels like. After spending time consciously self-editing, the tools will become habits, and even first drafts will begin to incorporate more skilled writing.
Wait—I don’t need this whole paragraph, the transition is implied.
Too many adverbs, I’m going to punch up the dialogue instead.
What if I told this non-chronologically?
I’m having so much fun writing something commercial!
Yes, this is where that description goes, and it shows what the hero is thinking.
OK, I can totally trim this down.
What if I did the next draft in first person?
Finally, a tough one—think about the way your work is received right now. Does anyone ask to read it? Not just when you ask for feedback, or when it’s your turn in the writing group, but do people not related to you read your work and approach you to ask for more? When you share a piece, do readers give a specific reason they liked it, or tell you the feelings they had when they read your work? Those are all good signs you’re writing at a publishable level. Ask some of those people what else they read, and go read those publications, too. How good is the writing? Would your work fit?
If you’ve been timid, or haven’t had a chance yet to get your work into a public forum, blogging, Medium, or writing-community sites like Wattpad and Sixfold can help you reach readers you don’t know personally.
Going through these steps is not a one-time thing. Every time your work improves, you’ll get better at analyzing others’ work, which in turn allows you to level up again. It’s a virtuous circle. Keep enjoying what you read and looking for the wow. When a writer impresses you, look for the tools they used. Practice using those tools in your own work. And start submitting to the places you love to read.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her forthcoming book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Join her and Ashleigh Renard Tuesday December 22nd for an Ask Us Anything episode of the Writers’ Bridge Platform Q&A (free, sign up here for Zoom link).
December 15, 2020 § 16 Comments
Staring at your not-final manuscript? Perhaps you rushed out a first draft in one glorious NaNoWriMo month. Perhaps you’ve slowly pecked away for 10 years. Either way, it’s a rush to finally type “the end” at the conclusion of a draft—you did it! You got there!
But what happens next? Your initial inspiration shines on the page, but you know it’s not “done-done.” How, exactly, does it become the next draft? Start with spellcheck? Get someone else to read it? And how will you know you’ve done all the work you can?
First drafts often spring from the impulsive heart, the burning need to tell what happened. Second—or any subsequent drafts—thrive with work plans.
Depending on how you enjoy writing, and how your best work gets done, your work plan might be a list of tasks or a method of proceeding.
Methodical revisers often start on page one, fixing sentences and scenes from beginning to end. Or they might work chapter by chapter, addressing dramatic arc, voice, theme and structure in each. Addressing multiple issues at once can save time, but it can be hard to see the story forest for the line-editing trees.
I swear by a list. The work plan I use (and recommend to many authors) lets me focus on the whole book, keeping the story in my head while tinkering with scenes and sentences.
1) Outline the story using my dramatic structure of choice. For fiction or action-based memoir, often a traditional 5-act structure. For an essay collection, character-driven literary fiction, or reflective memoir, perhaps a spiral from theme to theme and topic to topic. Business, self-help or a craft/how-to (like my forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book), benefit from a ladder structure showing how each subsequent chapter or concept builds on the previous, and each exercise or reflection asks the reader to branch out at that level.
2) Assess the outline. Are scenes in the right order? Do momentum and knowledge build? Does tension stay tight and reader understanding increase? Is the narrative pace too slow, or the number of things to learn too fast? Revise, moving chunks of text as needed and writing in placeholders for “missing” scenes or material.
3) Fill in any placeholders. Are some moments underwritten because the author got tired that day, or a scene evoked tough emotions? Is research needed to fill in a memory or plot gap?
4) Look at conflict. Does each scene or chapter include conflict between what someone wants and what they can get? Is the conflict between characters, between memoirist-as-narrator and memoirist-as-past-self, between narrator and self, narrator and society, or between the reader and their current beliefs/habits? If every scene includes conflict, where does the reader rest or absorb information? Revise scene by scene, increasing, decreasing or refocusing conflict as needed.
5) Revise scenes to get in late and get out early. Rather than parking the car and walking down the hall and entering the office and sitting down and greeting the boss, open with “You’re fired,” or better yet, standing by the car with a box of desk stuff. Edit scenes to close at or immediately after the moment of impact, with only the reflection needed to convey emotion. Even in “slower” or voice-driven books, make sure the reader’s time is spent loving a character, learning new information, enjoying a beautiful/fascinating/terrifying scene or drawing a powerful conclusion. Edit out filler.
6) Revise most scenes to start and end with a strong action, image or emotional moment. Strong scene/chapter openings and closings create pace. In more leisurely books, that’s where the reader has a moment to add their own thoughts to what you’re about to show them, or slows down to absorb the impact of what they’ve read. In faster books, these moments pull the reader forward with your narrative.
7) Refine the narrative and character voices. For each character, read only their dialogue and narrative. Does it sound like them and not anyone else? If all the dialogue tags vanished, would it still be pretty clear who’s talking? For nonfiction, is author voice clearly and specifically in the narrative? For fiction, does the narrative have a clear point of view?
8) Print the whole manuscript and make additional edits and notes on paper. Use scissors and tape to move anything that still needs to be moved.
Next, my favorite editing technique of all:
9) Instead of editing the existing file, retype the entire manuscript, plus any new edits, into a new file.
When I suggest retyping, writers look at me like I’m asking them to dance naked through the mall with flowers and tambourines. But this technique is powerful. Rewriting gives flow. Your authorial voice can more fully develop, like that great party anecdote you tell. The more you retell the whole thing, the better your timing and delivery get. You may also feel physical resistance at lovingly crafted passages…that don’t belong in this book after all. Plus, we are always the person most interested in our work. If it’s too boring to retype it, it’s too boring for anybody else to read.
This may not be your best work plan, and that’s OK! It’s time-consuming, and if you’re in a hurry, you might prefer something like this One-Pass Revision from Holly Lisle, which covers basically the same steps but with terrifying/awesome speed. The above plan also doesn’t address theme, opening hook, character objective, and other elements you’ll want to revise. But it will get you started, and having a specific, written plan can sustain you through writing days that feel like “work.”
If you try it, let me know how it goes (or if you need a cheer!). Nudity and tambourines optional.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Need more direction on your next draft? Join Allison’s Wednesday webinar all about Second Drafts, including theme, voice, hook and much, much more. More info/sign up here! (recording available if you register but can’t make it live).
December 10, 2020 § 18 Comments
Literary writing is often thought of as character-driven and high-falutin’ but slow-moving. Commercial writing, particularly genre fiction, is seen as plot-driven, faster-paced, and often (wrongly) characterized as easy to write and poorly written.
Is your book snobby or trashy? Your answer determines not only your publication opportunities, but who your readers and writing community are, and what bridges you’ll build to connect with them.
What exactly do you love about your favorite books? Beautiful sentences? They gave you a deeper understanding of the human condition? Or do you more enjoy a relaxed read that only demands you show up to be entertained? Literary and commercial writing both pull you into the author’s created world; both put you in someone else’s shoes. But literary writing makes you work a little harder, read more carefully for meaning. Commercial writing’s power is in events so fascinating, you forget the language itself, and invest in the characters, hoping they get it together—solve the mystery, disarm the bomb, fight the ghost, stop fighting each other—before the end of the book.
Think about your writing goals:
Do you want to draw attention to a larger issue as told through your personal experience? How many people should know about this problem? More than 10000, you probably want to write commercially.
Are you writing genre fiction? Almost certainly commercial.
Does your memoir read like speaking to a friend? Probably commercial unless you naturally have a very elevated voice.
Are you practicing making beautiful sentences, phrasing each word carefully on the page with attention to rhythm and structure? Probably literary.
Does most of your action happen inside the narrator’s head, or in “small” locations like a kitchen or a family home? Likely literary.
Are you pursuing an unusual structure, like a memoir made of a collection of fragments? Literary readers want the challenge of assembling those pieces.
Once you’ve got an idea of whether you’re literary or commercial, what do you DO with that information?
- Literary writers are more likely to be able to query a literary or university press without an agent.
- Commercial writers have a better chance of Big-Five publication, but will need an agent.
- For commercial writers in particular genres, self-publishing can be profitable.
- Both commercial and literary writers can land book deals from “hot essays”— topical pieces that grab public attention beyond the publication’s normal readership. Literary writers are more likely to be discovered in a literary journal or sophisticated mass-media publication like Harper’s or The Atlantic. Commercial writers are more likely to get attention in respected newspapers, women’s magazines like Marie Claire and Glamour, and online publications like Vox and Buzzfeed.
- Literary writers gain traction from attending conferences, MFA programs, and winning literary magazine competitions and prestigious residencies like Yaddo, Hedgebrook or The Macdowell Colony.
- Commercial writers are boosted by social-media engagement, mailing lists and regular mass-media publication.
- Commercial writers are boosted by becoming known experts on particular topics. (Become an expert by reading and researching; become known as an expert by actively sharing knowledge.)
The Actual Writing Part:
- When you’re improving your writing, read books you’d like to be shelved next to. Read them more than once.
- First read: enjoy the book!
- Second read: what’s the author doing technically in the voice, structure and story of the book? Can you see their writing choices on the page?
- Are you doing the same things in your work? Are you learning to do them better?
If you’re a literary writer, your number-one responsibility is to write an amazing book. Then help your book sell by committing to publishing in literary journals or prestigious mass media (it’s a long game!). Connect with other literary writers (including your workshop teachers). Actively improve your writing by taking classes if you can afford it, and/or rigorously analyzing books to learn how to do what they do, in your own voice and style. You’re going to need to be as good as the worst book you’ve ever bought, and ideally a lot better.
Commercial writers? You’ve got a lot to do. Genre fiction writers need a compelling book with a great concept and then a slog through the query trenches or a solid self-publishing plan. Commercial memoirists need platform. As you write, cultivate your audience. Who needs to hear what you have to say? Where are they? Engage in those communities. Ideally, by the time your memoir is finished, you’ll have fans so in love with your words, they can’t wait to buy your book for more.
Crossovers—often called “upmarket” or “book club”—books are a thing, too. Kate Atkinson and Hilary Mantel both have bodies of very literary work that reads (and sells) like commercial fiction. And of course, all writers need a strong understanding of plot and structure, and how to hook readers from the first page.
Literary writing is usually more beautiful at the sentence level—but literary writers must work hard to sustain reader interest through a quieter plot. Commercial writing is often more interestingly plotted—but commercial writers must still show quality writing sentence by sentence.
Neither path is superior. But choosing one will help you make other writing-career choices. Writing and publishing are time-consuming and overwhelming. Actively picking your path will be a smoother walk—with the companions you need along the way, and your readers waiting at your destination.
November 26, 2020 § 14 Comments
So often, to get to that goodness, we need an axe. As with turkeys, memoirs often call for dismemberment of the past, careful plucking, and a great deal of dressing to present the important parts for the feast. Garnishes. Good china. All so your friends can gasp in admiration (via Zoom, this year!) and your mother can suggest you should have used more salt. Or less salt. Or at least left out Cousin Sue.
Our holidays this year take extra effort for community. Effort, perhaps, saved from shopping, cooking, cleaning, traveling, and the forced gaiety of a table full of kin instead of family-of-choice. This year, anyone you’re seeing, you’re seeing on purpose.
We see you. We share this rough year, and we’re glad you’re our community. Glad you read, glad you write, glad you share your words with us, and Brevity’s words with your friends.
Thank you for contributing to our mission with your talent, your attention, your money and your time.
And always, thank you for writing, for reading, and being part of the creative nonfiction and memoir world. We’re here for you. Thank you for being here with us.
November 24, 2020 § 8 Comments
Writing advice often starts from the premise that we’re all going to sit down and bang out our word count for an hour every morning—or we should be. But not only do you not have to write every day, a lot of writers can’t write every day. They have families. Or they’re caregivers. Or demanding jobs consume their creative brains. This does not make them—or you—any less a writer.
But how do you assemble a set of scraps? And how will you envision the assembly of those scraps into a book when you have no time?
Start by honestly assessing where and when you can write. Not when you’d like to or wish you could, but when you actually can. Seven minutes waiting for the pot to boil? Twenty minutes before the kids wake up? (Only you can’t get out of bed because that will wake the kids up.) While pretending to watch and enjoy peewee soccer? Waiting in the carpool line?
Once you know when and where, choose how. I dictated the rough draft of this blog on my phone en route to an appointment,* and finished it in the waiting room on my laptop. Does your phone have voice-to-text? Can you hold a baby with one hand while composing sentences with the other? Could you carry an index card and a golf pencil in your back pocket everywhere, as Anne Lamott does? Is it better to have a small notebook in your bag, or a big one on your kitchen table? Could you type your memoir into the notes app on your phone as memoirist Esme Weijun Wang did?
If you’re working in scraps, strategize how to stay connected to your story’s thread. Try reviewing the most recent day’s work first—reading usually takes less time than writing. Start each writing session with a particular song, or even a flavor of tea to trigger your work. Perhaps set a topic each week and use the snowflake method, or mind-map moments from the event or person you remember first.
Our brains are marvelously adaptable. If you commit to writing in small bursts regularly, it will get easier. You’ll be able to pick up where you left off. Your book will become your best friend from high school who you haven’t seen in years, but the conversation flows like it was yesterday.
Maybe you’re a binge generator instead of a scraps gatherer. When you’re lucky enough to take a retreat week, or a weekend in a local AirBnb, or send the children for a weekend sleepover, you churn out several thousand words in one breathless go.
Retreats often take the first couple of days to “settle in.” But it’s possible to hit the ground running if you come in with a plan. Before bingeing, use your time scraps to map out your work. You could outline, start a list of topics, or note scenes to write.
Enlist your family. Instead of feeling guilty for taking time away, tell your kids or spouse you’re thankful for their support as you do this exciting thing you care about. (You would support them, right? Give them the honor and responsibility of choosing to support you.) Small children build maturity when they understand mom or dad has artistic work important to them and needs people who love them to say it’s OK to do it. Model this behavior for your kids, and they’ll learn to do it for you.
Enlist your friends, both writers and readers. Can someone give you a socially distanced day in their guest room? Lend you a whiteboard to plot your memoir?
What happens when you have to assemble your scraps or tidy your binged words into a new draft, something closer to an actual book?
Plan ahead. Every time you write, drop a quarter in a piggy bank. By the end of your first draft, you’ll have enough to get a half-day of childcare, or take a half-day off work. Use that time to map the book. With a clear structure in mind, you can still work in scraps, or take another binge when the time is right.
Consider an app like Scrivener for your phone, or a to-do program like Evernote, Things or Notion. Apps allow you to organize while writing, and see an overview of your book throughout the process.
Every writer needs a room of their own, and many of us don’t get one. But constructing a metaphorical room from method, intention and support can be the next best thing.
*Brevity does not recommend writing while driving, and you absolutely should not get a bluetooth headset for this exact purpose. Eyes on the road, people!
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Need to kickstart your 2021 memoir year? Join Allison and Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore for Memoir Large and Small, a 5-day virtual writing intensive with generative sessions, craft and publishing seminars, and an opportunity to publish on the Brevity blog. Find out more / register here.
November 19, 2020 § 25 Comments
“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book.” (Stephen King)
“I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at nine o’clock.” (Peter De Vries)
“Just write every day of your life.” (Ray Bradbury)
Write every day. Build a habit. That’s the only way you’re ever going to finish a book. It doesn’t matter how many words as long as you’re regular. I have many times told the story of Andre Dubus III writing The House of Sand and Fog, 17 minutes at a time, sitting in his car in the cemetery, and I tell it again in my forthcoming book about how to finish a book.
I don’t write every day.
I don’t even write every week.
Very often, I’m neck-deep in someone else’s manuscript, or teaching a workshop (last week, in prison!), or leading a retreat. I love teaching and editing, and I value doing those things. You might have a job you enjoy, or students’ work to read, or be the primary keeper of your home life. And while we can half-ass the things we don’t value to make more time for writing, it’s harder to pull time and focus away from things we care about doing well.
But even when I have vast swathes of open time, I don’t usually write every day. My brain needs fallow time. I’m working on three books right now, and I’m not writing every day on any of them.
I used to feel lazy and fake, because of course a real writer would use that time better. They’d spring from their bed, rush to the laptop, and bang out their daily word count, just like a real job! And since I didn’t act like a “real job” I must not be a “real writer.”
My creative life improved dramatically when I finally realized I run on what I call the “theatrical model.”
- Think about the project for maybe six months or a year, gradually accumulating notes and ideas.
- Sign up for a hard, non-negotiable deadline imposed by an outside source (the publishing equivalent of Opening Night).
- Rush through the entire creative process in six weeks, the last two weeks being 12-hour days.
- Tweak and revise after the deadline until it’s perfect. If it’s not revise-able, move on, trusting that I won’t make the same mistakes in the next project.
I’m fortunate enough that I can sometimes go stay in a hotel for a few days. In a self-made retreat, I’ll look at the manuscript I haven’t touched in weeks and pour out 5-10K words a day until it’s done, often at the very last minute.
What makes this way of working possible?
I’m not starting from nothing. When I was a theatre director, I already knew the style of the play, or had thought through what the staging would look like, or planned the acting beats, before I walked into the rehearsal room. I’d personally cast the actors, so I had a sense of what they were capable of, and approved the set, costume and lighting design. I don’t touch my manuscripts every day, but I stay in touch with the practice of writing sentences on Twitter. Short essays on Instagram. On an eleventh-draft novel, ten pages once a month for my writing group. And guess what? I bang out those ten pages the day they’re due. Every time.
I write 95% of my Brevity blogs in the 60 minutes before they’re published. But I know the rhythm of a post and what makes a clicky headline. I keep a long list of blog post ideas. Every day on social media and in my email, I see what writers care about, what challenges they’re facing, and I think about what advice will help, making notes for when it’s time to write.
As you fit your writing process into your life, enjoy the things you value that take time. Notice how you work best, and work that way on purpose. Maybe you are a daily writer who loves the rhythm. Maybe you’re better at the last minute. You get to write on the schedule you want. Keeping in touch with your work isn’t always sitting down at the keyboard for your daily word count. Sometimes it’s thinking through ideas in the shower, building up your story in your head, making notes in your phone or your notebook. Sometimes writing looks like typing, and sometimes it looks like keeping in touch with your world.
There are plenty of “real jobs” that operate on the “have a baseline of skill and resources and then do it all at the last minute under pressure.” Surgeon. Firefighter. Pilot. And in my case (and maybe yours), Writer.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking about Content Planning for Writers and how to come up with ideas at the drop of a hat, Tuesday November 24th at 1PM Eastern on The Writers Bridge. Sign up for the Zoom link (or post-show recording) here!
November 17, 2020 § 12 Comments
What happened to you was powerful—but will anyone else want to read it? And which events from your life go in the book, anyway? Do you need more backstory? Or more action? Is the reader going to get it?
The foul-mouthed creators of South Park and The Book of Mormon know the answer. You might not love their sense of humor, but Matt Stone and Trey Parker are story-structure geniuses. Every set-up pays off. Every scene is necessary to understand the whole story. Every action is motivated—often by hatred, selfishness, egotism or pettiness, but viewers never wonder “Huh, why’d he do that?”
A couple of years ago, Stone and Parker visited NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to speak to a Storytelling Strategies class.
(Here’s a great two-minute video of the below, including additional f-bombs)
They tell the students:
Trey Parker: We found out this really simple rule that maybe you guys have all heard before, but it took us a long time to learn it.
We can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked. Basically. You’ve got something pretty boring.
What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘so this happens’ right? And then this happens,’ no no no no, It should be ‘this happens, and therefore this happens. But this happens, therefore this happens.’
Literally we’ll sometimes write it out to make sure we’re doing it.
…And there’s so many scripts that we read from new writers and things that we see…
Matt Stone: …you see movies where you’re just watching, and it’s like this happens and then this happens, and this happens—and you’re going what the fuck am I watching this movie for? This happened, and then this happened, and then this happens. That’s not a story. It’s ‘but’ ‘because’, ‘therefore’ that gives you the causation between each beat, and that’s a story.
Revisit your manuscript. (This is a particularly good exercise if you’re stuck on your middle or ending.) List the scenes. What happens in each one? Can you connect each scene to the next with But! or Therefore… ? Do any of them connect with And then… ?
If a scene isn’t a “but” or a “therefore,” that still doesn’t mean cut it right away. Take another look. What’s literally happening in the scene, that you’ve written in the text as Then-You experiencing action and dialogue in the moment? What’s emotionally happening in the scene that’s clear in the subtext, or that you’re adding in the reflective voice of Narrator-You writing the book? Are both of those things fully present in what you’ve written?
My mom pulled out my drawers and dumped my clothes on the floor because she said they weren’t folded right.
And then I folded them all and put them back.
And then I went out and lost my virginity in the back seat of Susie’s car.
My mom dumped all my clothes on the floor.
Because I was afraid to defy her, and I still wanted her to love me, I folded them all the way she wanted and put them back.
But I wanted to show her she didn’t own all of me, therefore I went out and told Susie I wanted to lose my virginity now, and could I borrow her car?
Stilted as this is, isn’t it more exciting already?
The actual “therefore,” of course, doesn’t belong in your narrative. But each scene should imply that connection to the next, causation showing this scene could not have happened without that scene, therefore that scene is necessary to my story. This scene is that scene’s But or Therefore.
Then try working backward. Is each scene a specific result of something that has happened earlier? Is the end of your book the biggest Therefore of all?
Your scenes may not be in the exact order of causation—your timeline may show that long-past events were the “Because” of a present action, or Chapter 3 establishes a set-up that pays off in Chapter 9. But your conscious awareness of these connections will help you determine both if a scene belongs—and what the reader needs from this scene to move forward in your story.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Story as a live webinar December 16th, and the recording will be available to anyone registered.