November 13, 2018 § 18 Comments
Sir, you don’t have to tell us the whole story. It’s enough to say “novel” or “memoir” or “blog post” and how many words or what goal you’re—
Fiction or nonfiction? Well, what’s your book about? There’s computers? And you’re creating a character like you… That’s fiction. No, it doesn’t matter if it’s set in the real world, as soon as you start making stuff up, it’s fiction. I mean, unless you’re writing memoir and being honest about fuzzy memories. But I’ve never seen a bookstore shelf labeled “Fiction but Also Nonfiction.”
Sure, I can give you a couple tips. Let’s just get everyone else started and—
Yes, planning a story is hard. You might find this website useful, it breaks down a traditional three-act structure, using The Hunger Games.
Oh, you’re an engineer so you think differently. You don’t understand the “theory” of writing. Well, I wouldn’t really call this a “theory,” it’s more that certain dramatic structures show up in most stories, based on human archetypes. So if you’re writing nonfiction, you might look for events that tie into a traditional dramatic structure, and if you’re writing a novel, you get to make those events up, and the structure is a guide and can help with ideas.
Well I guess I could explain it differently—what’s that?
You want to write a bestseller.
You need to know how to write a bestseller because if you’re going to put your time in, you want it to be worthwhile.
Hang on while I take a couple of very deep breaths with my eyes closed.
You’re still here?
No, following this structure won’t guarantee you a bestseller. It’s a tool. Like when you write code, you can’t guarantee the end-users will love the product, but you can use your knowledge of how users have interacted with previous apps to build the next one.
There’s no magic button. If there was a formula for bestsellers, publishers would only accept books that would be big hits and writers would write them every time.
Oh goodness, that coffee just went right in your lap! I hope I haven’t boiled anything. Just keep writing, everyone!
Yes, that management book was a bestseller, and he did write it quickly. Did you know he’s a public speaker who does events for thousands of people, and has been writing a very popular blog for years? Some authors have what we call a “platform,” but that’s only for nonfiction. Well, and Fifty Shades of Grey. That had a huge internet following that grew over several years. But that book hit a very specific niche. No, E. L. James didn’t think “I’m going to write a bestseller.” She wrote what she loved.
Oops, was that your ankle bone? Sorry, just a reflex.
Yes, I’m sure you could choose to love something that would be popular, but there’s no guarantee you’d pick the right thing. Books you see on shelves were started at least two years ago. It takes a long time to finish a book, get an agent, and get a publisher.
Sure, you can publish it yourself, but marketing and building platform is a full-time job.
Good work moving your hand, sir, you’re fast! Just keep writing, everyone, while I pry this fork out of the table.
We’re here because we love to write. Some hope to sell our books, some of us write for our own pleasure. I’m sure we’d all love to write a bestseller, but that’s not why we’re writing. I mean, fame and money are great goals, but writing a book is probably one of the hardest ways to get there. By the time you count up all the hours, it’s not even that much money.
Yes, a “How to Write a Bestseller” workshop would be very popular. I’m sure I could charge lots of money for it. But I’d rather spend that time writing, and teaching something a little more realistic. Maybe “How to Write What You Love and Share It.”
I guess that wouldn’t be very exciting for someone who wants to write a bestseller. You want a workshop with a breakdown of a specific bestselling book’s dramatic structure. That would help you. Something exactly like that website I recommended 45 minutes ago.
OK everyone, I’ll just pick up my table and sweep up the broken glass, and let’s check in on how that hour went!
Allison K Williams enjoys writing, teaching, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is. She’s Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and will be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica in May 2019.
November 4, 2018 § 6 Comments
Having trouble making it to conferences? Finding workshop dates impossible or prices out of reach? Here’s a chance to enjoy a sampler of conference-style sessions you can watch in your yoga pants for free.
Starting November 8th, Village Writing School will present a series of free online lectures and interviews discussing memoir craft, marketing, platform-building and more. The video sessions will remain live until November 12th, and registrants may access them at their leisure over the five days.
Family and Religion—Two Scary Topics
Ruth Wariner’s memoir, The Sound of Gravel, details her escape at fifteen, with her brother and three younger sisters, from a polygamist cult in Mexico of which her father had been the leader. The book was an instant New York Times Best Seller and was called a “bracing, unforgettable story of survival” by Entertainment Weekly. Ruth will join us to discuss the difficulties of writing about these two emotionally-charged topics and why you should.
Telling Your #MeToo Story
It’s vitally important for writers to write and publish #MeToo memoirs. But what are the psychological challenges? What are the technical challenges? What writing techniques can help you portray a #MeToo scene? What should you keep in mind about your audience and about approaching publishers? What can you expect when you publically share your story? Tracy Strauss, who has published essays on writing #MeToo in Poets and Writers Magazine as well as Ms. Magazine, and whose own #MeToo story is forthcoming from Skyhorse Press, will guide you through this difficult topic with her courage and wit. You, too, can write for healing, for change, for empowerment.
It Doesn’t Take as Long as You Think
Rachael Herron, author of Fast Draft Your Memoir in 45 Hours and A Life in Stitches, will prove to you that you DO have time to tell your story. She’ll also show you how to figure out what that story is and how to find the best spine for it. No more excuses!
Thoughts on Your Story, Beginning to End
Marion Roach Smith, who has taught the craft of memoir to thousands of students both in university classes and online will show you what to consider before beginning your story. She will also examine some special challenges of writing about trauma and tell you what to do if you still don’t have a happy ending.
Other Ways to Tell Your Story
Allison K Williams, who teaches workshops on blogging and essays and hosts the Brevity podcast, will show you how to tell your story through live and written short forms. Even if a book is not your thing—or not your thing yet—Allison will show you how to get your voice out there and how to build a readership for your story.
Publishing Your Story—What New York Wants You to Know
Renée Fountain, President of GH Literary, will discuss the potential for memoir, the things to avoid, and what New York is looking for. And as a literary agent seeking memoir, she’ll tell you what she is looking for.
It’s Never Too Soon to Build Your Audience
Beyond a “platform,” you want an authentic connection with readers. What are some ways you can begin to build that relationship long before your book comes out? Dan Blank of WeGrowMedia will show you how such connections can become the most satisfying part of your writing career.
All sessions are hosted by Alison Taylor-Brown, the founder and director of The Village Writing School, a 501c3 nonprofit. The school is an independent creative writing program, located in beautiful northwest Arkansas. Its mission is to help writers tell their stories in a more readable, publishable way. Complete details and speaker bios are here.
Interested? Register here.
November 1, 2018 § 7 Comments
Remember that class where the teacher put people in groups and everyone shared a grade? How there was always that one person who slacked and drove everyone else crazy, and someone (possibly you) who worked double overtime to get the project done so you didn’t all fail?
Yeah, groups can really suck. Even writing groups, where we’re all there voluntarily…but so is That Writer. Plus the people who read too long, or ask for professional-level editorial feedback for free, or are all at wildly different levels.
But writing groups can also be great. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which writers all over the world shoot for 50000 words, from scratch(ish). I was on the fence about whether to participate: I’m really more of a memoirist…it’s a big commitment…my mom’s coming to town and I want to take her to see the penguins… But a writer friend and I have been trying to build more literary community in Dubai, and this seemed like a good opportunity. Not just to write—a lot—but to think through what makes a good group, in which I can do my work and still like everyone at the end.
As of Day One, here’s what’s working:
She who organizes, chooses… Dubai is a big place and not everyone drives. I thought about where to put the gathering that many writers could get to, what time of day would be best for the most people, if we could carpool, and then I realized, I’m doing this for me. For my work. I’m putting in the time to organize, so I get to pick. My times, my location.
But make it easy for people to help. We want to sustain the idea of writing in company beyond NaNoWriMo, so we made a WhatsApp group (it’s a texting app just about everyone outside the USA uses) where anyone who wanted to could set up a time and place to write, and anyone else could join them. You only want to write at night? You live on the other end of town? Great, tell us when and where and some of us will join you.
Stay loose… The group is for moral support and dedicated times and places to write. We’re not sticking to the NaNoWriMo model exactly—writers are sharing their specific, ambitious goals, but we aren’t all writing a first draft of a novel.
But set a big goal. One writer is doing 7 short stories this month. Another wants to generate enough blog posts to market for a couple of months so later he can focus on writing the actual book. I’m adding 50000 words to an existing manuscript, to get to the end of a first draft.
Be an enforcer. Our only rule: come and go as you please, but do it quietly. At the first meeting, I’m the person who popped up in the middle of my writing to say, “Welcome! Shhhhh! Jump in, we’re taking a break in 35 minutes and we’ll meet you then!” I’m also in charge of “Great break, back to the page everyone!” The sense of structure is appreciated, and having to set a good example keeps me focused, too.
Bring a multi-plug. Because the coffee shop you choose will have one inconveniently located outlet and everyone needs to charge.
Do your work. Writing groups can be a beautiful place of peace and harmony, or they can be (like today, around me) a swirl of corporate types doing a raucous team-building activity, opening and closing doors, writers coming and going, adding more tables, the waitress checking to see who needs more coffee. Put the headphones in. Focus. It’s good practice if you ever want to write at home. (The laundry can wait, I promise!)
It’s not a workshop. Generative writing in a communal space is not the time to share work. People can stay late if they want to share with each other. If you’re there to write, write, or you’ll end up resenting the time.
Writing is often solitary and sometimes thankless. Putting together a few people for peer pressure (I’m running out of steam! But they’re all still writing so I can’t stop!), fellowship, and cupcakes makes it feel better.
Want to jumpstart a project? Build a daily or weekly writing habit? Grab a group. Keep it simple, make strong choices, and keep going. Maybe the warm glow of group writing won’t last past the first week. Maybe we’ll make it to the end of November. But Day One was terrific. And I moved my Mom’s trip to December—the penguins will wait.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica, May 2019.
October 25, 2018 § 2 Comments
Recently, Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams was interviewed by humor writer Alex Baia at Hyoom. She discusses why every writer should take a playwriting course, and how to read actively to become a better writer:
I just bought an old, wrecked copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak at a library sale, to mark up and make notes in. But I think you don’t have to be that extreme. The process of learning an art goes in three stages: Be impressed, identify the tools, learn to use the tools. So copy down that beautiful paragraph, then analyze why it works—is it the flow, the voice, the way they anchor sentences with strong nouns at the end? Then write something parallel—same sentence structure, different nouns and verbs and adjectives. Then write your own version entirely, seeing how that voice or structure or style aligns with your own voice, and how it can influence the way you write your own voice.
Allison also talks about what she’s reading now, how asking for money on the street made her better at social media, and why learning to write is like sex:
People often assume sex and writing are innate talents, when in fact they are learned skills.
You can be a good writer and sell books if you have moderate-to-OK craft and tell a great story, But you cannot be a great writer without a respect for words that involves learning to use them properly. Language is a powerful tool. Maintain it and oil it and use it with care.
Read the whole interview at Hyoom (and music fans, check out Hyoom’s What Your Favorite Heavy Metal Genre Says About You).
September 13, 2018 § 23 Comments
When I was a temp, I wrote between phone calls on stolen photocopy paper; when I worked in bars, I used cocktail napkins. On long drives from circus gig to circus gig, I’d brace a notebook against the steering wheel on long, straight stretches of Georgia or South Dakota, scribbling notes for stories, phrases I liked, books I’d write some day. I kept thinking, if only I had a patron to pay my rent. An office. Free time. Surely writing would be easier with time on my hands. Of course I’d do more than an hour a day squeezed between shows, glitter and rosin smudging the paper. Diving into creative headspace would be easier full time. But I guessed I’d keep cranking out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day until my fairy godmother appeared.
Now I have a big table in a sunny room, a freelance editing job with dwindling hours, and a husband who says, “Just write—you don’t even have to publish.” I have the free time and cash to go to writing workshops. I have a co-working space with lightning-fast wifi. I’m still excellent at filling my time. I answer email first thing in the morning, do clients’ pages before my own, make pretty PowerPoints for conferences and go speak at them.
On one hand, writing while physically and financially secure should be much easier. Not wondering where my next meal is coming from has given me time and space. But making writing my job-that-need-not-pay has also blunted some of the urgency. I don’t have to finish this essay now, it’s another fresh morning tomorrow. I don’t have to prove my talent or worth to all my co-workers, because I’m already surrounded with people who take writing seriously.
Back when I was a full-time performer, I told other entertainers all the time, “Quit your day job. You get better when you’re hungry.” In a field where every gig was a one-time booking and we often literally passed the hat after shows, making a full-time living depended on getting much better very quickly. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t eat, so I got funny. Personal dignity became much less valuable when weighed against paying rent. Every comedian finds ways to abase themselves while still controlling the room, and dignity emerges out the other side brushing its sleeves. Dignity responds to, “Do you really make a living at this?” with “I’ve been a college professor, and this pays about the same, plus I don’t have to go to committee meetings.”
Not writing to eat slows me down, but I’m making better work—it’s more considered, careful, well-phrased. I don’t count on shock value. It’s no longer enough to write the story no-one else is brave enough to tell—it has to be told well. I take time over chapters I would have banged out ten years ago. In fact, it takes me just about ten years to write a book. Two years of generating material, two years of dicking around, four years of fallow time where the manuscript reproaches me from my desktop every time I open the laptop, and two years of getting down to business.
I hope it’s worth it. I hope the book I’m nearly done with will be better than if it took me two years or a year or nine months to write. But in the end, there’s no way to know.
At my desk, my husband picks up my fancy noise-canceling headphones, and says mock-derisively, “You don’t have a hardship in the world.” Then he shakes his head and says seriously, “Must make it hard to write.”
He’s right. He’s wrong.
I still crank out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day, and I do it in about an hour, squeezed in between editing and housework and social media. I can’t write more than a couple hours a day unless I’m in full-on retreat mode, sustainable only for a couple weeks in an isolated place where someone else is cooking meals. I watch TV, which was not a part of my life on the road, and my husband and I take turns pausing the show and predicting what’s going to happen next. Maybe it’s making me a better storyteller. Maybe it’s resting my brain. Maybe it’s wasting my time.
I’ll write when I’m hungry and I’ll write when I’m secure. More money and time doesn’t make me write (much) more, and I’m not going to feel guilty or sad about that. A book takes the time it takes, and that’s not anyone else’s timeline. Writing is what I do, and I do it at the speed I can.
September 4, 2018 § 10 Comments
It’s been five months of exciting technical challenges since the last Brevity Podcast, but we’re back! This episode, we finally reveal the fifteen One-Minute Memoirs, and our podcast host Allison K Williams and Audio Editor Kathryn Rose discuss why we chose them (from over 300 submissions!), the process of reading and listening to all the submitted essays, and key things writers can do to make their work stand out from the rest of the submissions pile.
Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Anne Boaden earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College and is writing a memoir of her active duty with the United States Marine Corps flying AH-1W Cobra attack helicopters. Her work has appeared in The Pitkin Review and NELLE. She lives in England with her husband, two cats, one dog, flock of chickens, and brand-new baby Robin Anne Delgaard Boaden.
Tracy Royce is a poet, writer, and doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her work has appeared in The Fat Studies Reader, Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Affilia, and Mother of Invention: How Our Mothers Influenced Us as Feminist Academics and Activists.
Anne McGrath’s work has appeared in Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, The Brevity Blog, Chapman University’s Dirt Cakes, The Caterpillar Magazine, and the One Hundred Voices anthology. Ms. McGrath is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Irvin Weathersby is a Brooklyn-based writer and professor from New Orleans. His work has appeared in literary journals and magazines including Notable Black American Men Book II, Killens Review, The Atlantic, Ebony, and Esquire.
Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow. All the Colors We Will See, her essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging is now out from Thomas Nelson, and has been named a Fall 2018 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.
MFC Feeley attended UC Berkeley and NYU. She has published in The Tishman Review, Mainstreet Rag, WicWas, Plate In The Mirror, and Ghost Parachute, and was a 2016 fellow at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and a 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarterfinalist. She won the Raven Prize for CNF and is writing a series of short stories inspired by the Bill of Rights for Ghost Parachute.
Jamie Zvirzdin teaches in the Master of Arts Science Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. Her work has previously appeared in The Kenyon Review, Issues in Science and Technology, Creative Nonfiction, and CONSEQUENCE.
Evie Gold is a non-fiction humor essayist, a sushi connoisseur, and a wandering nomad.
BK Marcus is a homeschooling dad in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he also performs and coaches live storytelling.
Erin Murphy‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including The Georgia Review, Memoir Magazine, The Normal School, Field, Southern Humanities Review and North American Review. She is the editor of Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers, and is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Penn State Altoona.
Georgie Hunt’s writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, NANO Fiction, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” and Brevity. She was a finalist in Black Warrior Review’s 11th Annual Nonfiction Contest, and holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
Karen Egee writes to savor the good and try to make sense of the rest. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and dog. They spend as much time in Maine as possible.
Rhonda Zimlich’s fiction and memoir has appeared in publications such as Crow Pie, Acorn Review, and Ink Stains. She enjoys living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, twin daughters, and feisty black cats. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts this summer.
Scott F. Parker’s book A Way Home from Oregon: Essays has just been released from Kelson Books.
Jennifer Lang writes mostly about her divided self. Her essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Full Grown People. She’s been nominated for Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize, and is writing her first memoir.
Next episode, we’ll be talking about Writing Hard Things.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and hosts the Brevity Podcast. She’s writing this in Paris, yesterday she was in Tunisia, New York the day before, and tonight she’s back home in Dubai…hence our erratic podcast schedule.
August 21, 2018 § 32 Comments
Yesterday I went viral on Twitter:
Toni Morrison: 40
Mark Twain: 41
Marcel Proust: 43
Henry Miller: 44
JRR Tolkien: 45
Raymond Chandler: 51
Richard Adams: 52
Annie Proulx: 57
Laura Ingalls Wilder: 65
Frank McCourt: 66
Harriett Doerr: 74
Harry Bernstein: 96
No, you’re not too old to publish your first book.
— Allison K Williams (@GuerillaMemoir) August 19, 2018
And aside from 17 replies of “But I’m 97,” a few scoldings on how I shouldn’t glorify Laura Ingalls Wilder, 12 “What if I’m just lazy,” and a couple of crabapples sniping about factual accuracy (yes, I should have said “novel” for Twain), the overall response was one of relief.
Thank you, I needed that.
There’s still hope.
I needed to hear that today.
A lot of people are worried they might be too old, or not published enough (the paradox of not publishing until you’re published), or that being a writer is somehow a special condition and only certain people are allowed to contract it.
It was fun to see so many retweets and likes, and I checked in periodically while putting together a PowerPoint for a workshop next weekend, “25 Hours in the Day: Planning and Living a Writing Life.” I made pretty slides about saying no to tasks that don’t help your writing, and how many “obligations” we take on aren’t really things we’re obliged to do, and apps and tools to manage our time. Then I edited two hours for a client, went to the library and printed some maps I needed for novel research, refilled a prescription long-distance and answered some email.
My day also included a panic attack, where I wept and vented on the phone to my best writing friend, because I’ve just finished a writing workshop and booked myself three days of personal writing time in the same location, and I’m spending that time working for other people.
Not writing my book.
I feel my age closing in, the sense that I’ve “wasted my life,” which is patently ridiculous given that 1) I’m only in my 40s; and 2) I’ve already done three successful careers which, surprise! gave me shit to write about.
But in a one-on-one consultation with my teacher last week, he looked at me very sternly and said “You need to stop editing and write your own book.” I repeated that to my husband, who said “That’s what I’ve been telling you for four years.”
I like editing. I like teaching and speaking and helping other people work for their dreams, and I don’t want to quit entirely. I like blogging for Brevity.
I don’t want to quit teaching circus entirely.
I don’t want to quit traveling.
And all these things help me write, yes, but they also take time from writing. They demand physical and mental energy. That’s what we forget when planning our writing lives: it’s not the obligations we chafe at that are hard to shuck off—It’s the stuff we love.
Many writers love being a good spouse. Parenting well. Looking after a family member who needs help. Those aren’t writing hours.
We enjoy living in a nice place and keeping it up. We like working to pay rent and food and the care of people who need us. We take pride in doing well at that work—some of us even adore the work itself. Those aren’t writing hours.
If I’m going to write, I have to make writing hours. A lot of them. I don’t have kids, but I like being a good wife. I like the self-respect that came from being self-supporting. Some of being a good writer is sacrificing some of those two things. I contribute to the house with money and work, but after twenty primary-breadwinning years, I’m not self-supporting any more. My best writing time is often away from my husband by thousands of miles. And it’s hard to say no to editing clients, because I’m arrogant enough to think I can help them best.
Small things help: I pop in my earbuds and put on the song that launches me into one book or another. I maximize my time by turning off wifi and my phone. I updated my website to say I’m not taking on new writers, because it’s easier to have potential clients say no to themselves before emailing me.
I’m privileged that these are options I have; your barriers may be different and much harder to surmount. But it’s easy to make time for writing by saying, “I’ll get the kids to do their own laundry and start doing groceries only once a week.” It’s much harder to look at things we love and value, and decide we might love writing more. Especially when we aren’t living on our writing money, the time we spend can feel like self-indulgence, like a frill.
But we’d tell our treasured friend, You deserve that time. We’d say, Modeling dedication and focus is also good parenting. We’d tell them their spouse should be supportive, and applaud the spouses who were.
Let’s tell it to ourselves, too. Let’s ask, What’s stopping me from writing? and be brave enough to let go.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow her adventures with the monthly I Do Words TinyLetter.