Looking Backward

October 20, 2020 § 15 Comments

So what?

It’s the key question for all memoirists: Why should the reader care? What’s in it for them?

Autobiography and biography have the shortcut of fame. What’s in it for the reader is finding out more about someone they’re already fascinated with. But for those of us not (yet) famous, our memoir must have a takeaway for the reader. Just as we grew and changed in the story itself, our telling of it must grow and change the reader.

What gives the reader a chance for personal growth while reading our self-history?

Reflection.

Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story:

Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.

Biographies recite facts, hopefully told in an interesting way. Memoir creates meaning, and a key technique for creating that meaning is reflection, using the retrospective voice.

The retrospective voice is different from “the past” or “the past tense.” Past-You reacts in the moment, and you show it in action, in a scene, and in whatever tense you’ve chosen for your narrative. Here, in Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson writes about her childhood:

By age seven I realized that there was something wrong with me, and that most children didn’t hyperventilate and throw up when asked to leave the house. My mother called me “quirky.” My teachers whispered “neurotic.” But deep down I knew there was a better word for what I was. Doomed.

There’s thinking in here, yes, but the author is thinking as the child she was, processing her experiences through the reactions of the adults around her at that time. We’re staying in the child’s time period. The narration is simply phrased and focuses on the immediate feelings and reactions of the child. The reader’s engagement is in the humor and pathos of the situation, without commentary from the adult narrator.

Using the retrospective voice, Narrator-You juxtaposes events to create meaning—meaning that brings a sense of shared humanity and realization to the reader.

Jenny Lawson again, later in the book and in her personal timeline:

The skating rink was shuttered and abandoned, the sign filled with empty birds’ nests. The bookstore where I’d met Victor was gone now, and my grandparents’ home sold soon after they died…My sister and I walked through the aftermath of the playground together and I took a small piece of the rubble to remember it by. Now when I pass by the school I look away and remember it the way it was, with the dangerous metal seesaws and merry-go-rounds that eventually disappeared all over America. All that remains of it today is the memory, still echoing in my head, of the sound of my favorite swing, squeaking rustily and comfortingly, over and over, back and forth.

The language isn’t any more complex, but the sentences are longer and contain more images than actions and feelings. There’s a deliberate rhythm in the end of the last line that lingers for the reader, allowing them a moment in their own thoughts of what, for them, has passed.

You can blend the retrospective voice with a past scene, and the contrast is often poignant or funny:

[My mother] gave us a look that my father always seemed to interpret as “How lucky you girls are to have such an adventurous father,” but which I always read as “One of you will probably not survive your father’s enthusiasm. Most likely it will be Lisa, since she’s smaller and can’t run as fast, but she is quite good at hiding in small spaces, so really it’s anyone’s game.” More likely, though, it was something like, “Christ, why won’t someone hurry up and invent Xanax?”

Most of the paragraph is Past-Jenny, but the last sentence is Narrator-Jenny, wryly assessing the moment as her adult self.

Take a look at a memoir you admire. Where is the writer their past self, thinking and feeling and experiencing? Where are they the narrator, making meaning from those moments, maybe even straight-up telling what they know now? And more technically, where has the writer put events and scenes physically next to each other on the page, so that their juxtaposition itself creates meaning for the reader?

Ask those questions of your own work, too. Chances are you’re already using the retrospective voice instinctively; now apply it deliberately. Where do you want the reader to stay with Past-You, reacting directly to the action? Where do you want to share Narrator-You’s discoveries, so that the reader can reflect themselves, feeling the resonance of your words in their own life?

The retrospective voice dances on the edge of being the moral of the story, but allows the reader room to complete the thought themselves. It’s telling just enough. In the main narrative, show them what you did. In the retrospective voice, show them what you know.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tomorrow, she’s teaching the webinar, Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s just over an hour and a steal at $25. Recording will be available but you must register in advance: sign up here.

 

Cover Story

October 13, 2020 § 16 Comments

Sometimes writers feel we have to limit what we share on social media and in our work: I write memoir, why does anyone want to see my garden? My book is a parenting journey—can I write an essay about addiction? But our whole selves make our creative work. Seeing a writer’s favorite topics juxtaposed shows why you’re writing about those things. Parenting informs your writing on trauma. Gardening influences your thoughts on social justice. Readers want to see what inspires us as well as the words we create.

These topics and interests are your “content buckets” full of ideas for books, essays, articles and social media posts. Everything you see and have a strong feeling about. Every problem people have that you could advise on. Every experience you’re willing to share, so readers discover, “I’m not the only one who feels like this.”

One way to name your content buckets is the #MagazineCoverChallenge. If Writer-You were a magazine, what would the cover look like? What photo represents an aspect of your writing tone, genre or material? What topics from your work AND your life would be featured articles?

A Facebook writers’ group I’m in used the #MagazineCoverChallenge to visualize and share our content buckets. Here’s what we experienced:


Stephanie Weaver: I knew if I focused on design skills I would never get it finished, so I decided right up front that mine would not look professionally designed, because that wasn’t the challenge. That freed me up to get it done and post it. I also didn’t spend much time crafting the topics to sound exactly like they would on a magazine cover.

Candice Marley Connor: being given permission to toot my own horn was very liberating. Funny how I feel I’m not allowed to tout my accomplishments unless invited to.

Casey Mulligan Walsh: The fun of designing a magazine cover unleashed the sort of thought process I couldn’t quite access when attempting to make a simple list of content buckets. Suddenly every idea seemed a little more exciting and sparked another.

Abby Alten Schwartz: In addition to being a writer, I’m a graphic designer, so approaching this as a visual project allowed me to use tools I am familiar with and communicate it a way that makes sense to me. It necessitates bite-size descriptions and decisions about the hierarchy of the thoughts on the page.

Emily Brisse: Whether it’s a product of my Midwestern roots or just my introverted self, I cringe at anything resembling self-promotion, especially if it involves my face. I like my face just fine! But I’m often constrained by this cringey belief that I’m not supposed to say that. So, creating something where my face is front and center? That took a lot of other women showing me just how okay it was to gather together a list of why they were amazing, AND include their face as one of those reasons, for me to find some kind of permission to do the same.

Sarah Bringhurst Familia: I put off making my cover for weeks, and eventually realised I was unconsciously recoiling from the idea of distilling my entire personality into a magazine cover. Actually going through my [Instagram] feed allowed me to see certain topics I come back to over and over. Then I gave myself permission to focus on those, instead of trying to stuff a whole biographical sketch into a magazine cover.

Jo Acholonu: 2020 has been a trying time for so many of us and, I think, has forced us all to be reflective in some way and so my cover focuses on the aspects of life and writing I want more of, not just of myself but creatives in general. Especially the no more slave narratives…that thought in particular has been consuming me in the best and most beautiful way possible. The BIPOC community is so rich in experience, it’s a disservice to paint us with a single brush of suffering and servitude. Not only do my personal life experiences show that, but also my extensive travels and it just feels like the more I see of the world, I realize just how many stories go untold.

Carrie Honaker: Focus. As a writer, I know what content buckets I lean into, but I tend to be all over the board on social media. [The challenge] helped me distill my “brand” and see how building a platform and my ass-in-the-chair writing can feed and reflect each other. Designing the magazine cover forced me to laser in on what you might find about me if you looked past the cover into the pages of words.

Abby: I was having a difficult time wrapping my head around what my IG feed should be about. Originally it was purely personalbooks I was reading, meals I cooked, photos of my dog. I deliberately shifted to content that will help me connect with an audience for my memoir-in-progress and the essays I am now writing and submitting. This exercise helped me recognize that I have expertise in a number of areas and they are all spokes of the same wheel. What will pull them together will be my visual voice and my writing voice, as long as I am authentically representing myself. It was a surprisingly effective challenge.

Casey: I’ll definitely be coming back to these categories when brainstorming ideas for both social and blog posts, and they’ve helped me more clearly articulate my “brand” and what belongs on my website.

Abby: I’ve already started putting together some ideas for future posts about freelance life, with the intention of providing tips that bring value to the reader.

Emily: I hadn’t realized that most of what I write and post about ties back in some way to “learning.” This definitely fits with how I experience and understand the world, so I was happy to find this overarching theme.

Stephanie: I learned that I should talk more about living with chronic illness, something I don’t tend to share much about.

Abby: My content can be eclectic, and what unifies it is me. My voice. My perspective. My journey, to use a slightly cringe-inducing but apt word. I learn visually, so seeing my content buckets displayed in a magazine cover format helped me quickly wrap my brain around them.

Candice: The magazine cover challenge helped me realize that building a platform isn’t the scary, out-of-reach monster it felt like the first time I heard about it at an author’s seminar. Writing platforms are really just embracing your interests and being yourself!

Want to take the #MagazineCoverChallenge?

Your own cover doesn’t need to be super fancy. Our group made them in WordSwag, Instagram Stories, Canva, even PowerPoint! Design skills are great, but ultimately we’re writers. Regardless of the level of visual slickness, every writer above has shown who they are and what they write. Our covers are guides when thinking, “what should I write my next essay about?” or “how can I develop themes in my novel?” or even “what should I put on social media today?” And it was fun!

If you’d like to share, post your cover to Twitter or Instagram. Hashtag #MagazineCoverChallenge and tag me @guerillamemoir. I’ll RT/repost and give you some love.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her webinar Nail Your Memoir Structure By Thinking Like a Novelist is October 21 (recording available). Register here!

Every Word is a Nickel

October 8, 2020 § 22 Comments

Black and white vintage photo of man wearing a bankruptcy barrelPerhaps your manuscript is as good as you can make it…but you’d like a second opinion. Or maybe you know something isn’t quite clicking…but you’re not sure what. Maybe you’ve heard a fellow writer say, “My editor pointed out issue X and everything fell into place! I still have a lot of work to do, but I know where I’m going.” Maybe you’re getting rejections and you don’t know why your book isn’t landing with agents or publishers.

Most authors reach a draft where they can’t improve their manuscript further without high-level outside input. More thorough or more sophisticated critique than even your best writer friends have time to give. It’s time to call in a big favor…or spend money.

If your literary citizenship has included reading for friends and acquaintances, promoting and reviewing their books, and staying in touch with workshop colleagues and teachers, you may have a free or low-cost reader available. A writer you trust, whose work you believe is more polished than yours. Maybe the classmate who gave the best feedback to everyone else. Someone who doesn’t love everything you write—praise is not useful at this time.

Ask in a way that makes it easy to say no, and that suggests you’re prepared to compensate them appropriately for their expertise.

I don’t know what your schedule is like right now, but do you do manuscript reads? And if so, do you have a regular rate?

They might say, “I’d love to read your work, just send it along,” in which case you send a heartfelt thank-you note and review everything they ever write in as many online locations as you can. Or they’ll quote a price and you can decide if they’re within your budget.

A free or low-cost reader needs your request for feedback to be as specific as possible. You might ask 5-10 questions like, “Does the main character’s emotional journey pay off at the end?” or “Can you please highlight things you think I can cut?”

High-level critique also comes from professional editors. A good editor will help you make your book the best you can write, and much readier for querying, submissions or self-publishing. Unlike your friend doing you a favor, you’ll have a specific due date and a clear scope of work.

If you’ve explored hiring a professional editor, you may have noticed one key element: Good editors are EXPENSIVE. House payment-expensive. International airline ticket-expensive. Sometimes even refundable business class-expensive. Editing is skilled, high-level work that should dramatically increase the sellability of your book, and it costs accordingly.

Editors may bill a set project fee, hourly (with an estimate), or per-word. Some charge per page, but a “standard” page is 250 words so that’s functionally per-word. These prices are usually based on how much time your manuscript needs. Send the cleanest manuscript you can. Pages with fewer typos and grammatical errors take less time; you’ll also get more bang for your buck if the editor spends her time on issues you couldn’t see or fix yourself.

You can also save money on editing by reducing your word count. The more unnecessary words you remove on your own, the less a full edit will cost. Here’s how to slim down your story without losing what’s important:

1) Many memoirs (and novels!) start too late. Send pages 50-75 to someone who hasn’t read the book. Ask what they know about the story and the narrator. Cut those details out of the first 50 pages. Ask what they wish they knew. See if you can move those things out of the first 50 pages and put them in later, but smaller. I’ve had several editorial clients who cut their first 50 pages because the story hadn’t started yet. Especially if it was a big chunk of family history.

2) Send only the first 25 pages (now possibly your revised pages 50-75) for professional editing. Problems at the beginning are almost certainly problems through the whole book. Ask for a list of what to fix, then address those issues in the rest of the book before sending off your entire manuscript. If your memoir is over 85K words, ask specifically about reducing length. (If your manuscript is under 60K, ask what you’re missing that needs to be added in.)

3) Do a Word Cloud (I like Wordle) to see overused words. Remove/substitute as needed.

4) Search for that, very, really, beginning to/began to, starting to/started to, and continued and take out half to two-thirds of each.

Words add up. Developmental edit on an 85K manuscript at 4 cents/word? $3400. Cut 4000 words of extra subplot, 4800 words of excess description and 200 appearances of very and really? You just saved $400.

Before committing to working with a professional or other high-level reader, do as much as you can alone. Join a writing group, trade manuscripts with a writer buddy. Before you send your pages or manuscript, read through one more time. Knowing that feedback is imminent, more issues will stick out. It’s possible you’ll solve your own problem. It’s also possible you’ll still need an edit.

Editing is not a magic cure. Your book still may be unpublishable. Your writing may not be ready. But a good editor will not just polish this book—her feedback will teach you more about writing, and your next book will start at a higher level of craft.

And if what you’re struggling with is structure? Check out my webinar October 21st: Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s only $25—no matter what your word count is.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. October 21st, she’ll be teaching how to structure a memoir to engage readers, agents and publishers. What’s an “inciting incident” or a “climax” when you’re looking at real life? How to decide what events belong in your book? Suitable for those with an idea, a draft, or a terrifying pile of material, you’ll discover how to tell the right story about the story you need to tell. Sign up here.

Platform Without Tears (today!)

August 25, 2020 § 8 Comments

Back in May, I wrote about many writers’ fundamental misunderstandings of “platform”: it’s not being famous, going viral, or all about getting clicks on Twitter.

Here’s the main problem with “building platform”: a “platform” is something you get up on and yell at people.

Instead, build a bridge.

Your bridge is all the ways people who need your book can reach you. You are making a pathway for your readers, and it’s a two-way street. You listen to them, they listen to you…If you’re consistently entertaining, kind, and helpful in your world, some of your connections will become advocates for your book. You’ll also know more, be a better writer, and understand your readers.

This resonated with many writers. But there’s still a lot of confusion over just how to start building platform, from the beginning. From the “How do you turn this thing on?” stage of social media. The very beginning of brainstorming what kinds of outreach will engage your readers, develop your own writing craft…and is fun for you!

Memoirist Ashleigh Renard and I are here to help. We’ve started The Writer’s Bridge—a free biweekly Zoom chat about all things platform, aimed at writers who are just beginning to connect with readers on the long road to publication.

Some key takeaways from the last chat:

  • You don’t need 100k followers, you need 1000 superfans. Engagement is much more important than follower count
  • Show your face in your profile pictures, because readers want to know YOU
  • Only do the platforms you like—you don’t have to do them all
  • Create things that are fun to create!
  • Share MOMENTS not THINGS; make the reader feel something—show instead of telling.

We also talked about limiting your social media time by setting a timer and doing strategic actions, rather than randomly scrolling.

 

If you have 15 minutes a day…

  • Follow accounts of writers you admire who have bigger followings than you, and add relevant and contributing comments—sometimes you’ll start a conversation with their other followers, and that can lead to those people engaging with you on your own account.
  • Spend five minutes interacting and commenting, by clicking hashtags you follow, like #amwritingmemoir, #cnftweet, or #writewritewrite. This helps you see and be seen by accounts who aren’t already following you, and writers and readers you don’t already know.
  • Post once to one platform.

 

If you have 30 minutes a day…

  • Follow your admired-writer accounts, add relevant and contributing comments
  • Spend ten minutes interacting with hashtags you follow
  • Post once to each of two platforms
  • Work on planning your posts. Explore a look or tone you like (funny tweets? light and airy photos?) and stockpile ideas by taking screenshots and saving them in a new album on your phone. OR Brainstorm ideas for blog posts or newsletters, collecting useful links to share or thinking of personal stories you’d like to tell your email list.

 

If you have 60 minutes a day…

  • Follow your admired-writer accounts, add relevant and contributing comments
  • Spend ten minutes interacting with hashtags you follow
  • Post once to each platform you are using
  • Start/Add to your list of potential captions, by thinking about stories or writing tips you’d like to share with your readers and fellow writers. Seek out quotes that inspire you and you’d like to respond to. Put some rough-draft captions in the notes app on your phone that you can work on and copy-paste to Instagram or Twitter when you’re ready.
  • Play around with a photo-editing app like Snapseed (free! also available for Android) or A Color Story (free and paid options, iOS and Android) and see if there’s a look you enjoy unifying your photos with. OR Recreate classic Instagram photo types: hands holding something living, flatlays (your desk with your writing stuff, shot from above), a book in a “styled” environment, etc.

 

This week’s chat is today at 1PM EST. If you’d like to join us, sign up here to receive an email with the Zoom link:

The Writer’s Bridge

If you can’t make it, sign up anyway! We’ll send a link to the recording afterward, and you’ll be invited to the next chat September 8th.

Today, Ashleigh and Allison will journey through Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and answer this week’s million dollar (or six-figure advance) questions:

  • Who to follow?
  • How can I use Twitter lists?
  • Instagram analytics…um are what?
  • Does my IG need to look pretty?
  • Facebook Author page, colossal waste of time or merely pointless?

We’ll also answer questions in the chat and review one lucky volunteer’s social media with tips and tricks.

After last week’s chat, we heard:

“…Flawless and jam packed with great information and tips. Thank you so much for catering to the absolutely clueless!”

“This was SUPERB. I’ve taken several workshops on this topic. Yours was the first one that not only didn’t exhaust me — it energized me!”

“Social media feels so overwhelming and I love how you make it feel manageable.”

Next week, we’d love to hear from you. See you on The Writers’ Bridge!

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her newsletter for adventures in writing and stories from the road!

That New-Agent Smell

August 4, 2020 § 19 Comments

“Eeeeee! Eeeeee! Eeeeee!” were my measured and intelligent words upon scheduling The Call. An agent wanted to work with ME? Wanted to talk about my book? An agent who had rejected two previous books, whose work and advice I’d followed for years?

Reader, I signed with her.

Eventually.

Two weeks after a wonderful call with an agent I respected and admired, and who respected me and liked my work, we actually said “I do,” and two weeks after that we signed a contract and got down to business.

Why so coy?

When you finally get the hallelujah! email saying, “I really enjoyed reading your manuscript, could we schedule a call?” it’s tempting to proceed immediately to your temple of choice to give offerings, then send you-missed-out emails while singing “Let’s call the whole thing off!” to all those other agents who didn’t move fast enough to snap you up, who made you wait.

Resist that impulse. I mean, sure, sing anything you like, and ritual is always reassuring, but an author’s first step after scheduling an agent call is far simpler and more frustrating:

Wait.

Maybe do a little more research—you of course researched this agent before submitting—but it’s worth revisiting her website and Twitter feed, and browsing the websites of authors she represents. This reminds you why you like this agent, and if she says on your call, “I’ve been working on Author X’s new release,” you can respond with “I adore animal-friendship memoirs!” or even just “I love that cover!” which makes you look savvy and shows you care about her work, too.

Your next step? Send more queries.

You heard me.

Look at your list of agents and send 5-10 more queries to agents you’d like to work with, but haven’t gotten to yet. Maybe you were waiting to see if this query got good responses before sending to your A-list.

Send those queries NOW. Time is of the essence.

Enjoy your agent call. Ask lots of questions, like:

  • What readers do you see as ideal for this book?
  • Do you see this as a Big-Five book or a medium or smaller press?
  • What revisions would you suggest?
  • How hands-on are you with your authors? How often would we communicate?
  • How much editing do you do?

It’s like hiring a babysitter. Great babysitters are worth their weight in gold, and you must entice them with your well-behaved children, plentiful snacks and Netflix. But they still work for you, and you can’t trust just anyone with the beautiful baby that is your book. When talking to a potential agent, you are not a desperate supplicant grateful for attention. You are a creator of something lovely that you both think is worth selling, and you’re both envisioning that process playing out.

Maybe the call is terrific. You adore this agent, you love her plans for your book, her revision suggestions were enlightening. You are thrilled—THRILLED—someone wants you. You’re ready to blow off all those other agents. That new-agent smell is already making your whole life better.

You still don’t sign yet.

You say something like, “I have a few other queries/pages requests/fulls out, let me follow up on those and get back to you.” You and the agent set a deadline for accepting her offer of representation, usually in 10-14 days.

Now follow up with everyone else you’ve queried who hasn’t sent a rejection (including the queries you just sent after scheduling the call, remember those?). Forward your original query, adding 1-2 sentences at the top along the lines of, “Following up on the below—I have an offer of rep and will be deciding by [date]. Will you let me know if I should still keep you in mind?” Before the “re:” in the email subject line, write in all caps, OFFER OF REP RECEIVED.

Most of them still won’t get back to you. So why do this?

1) It’s polite. Another agent may in fact be 50 pages in and loving your manuscript more every minute. They’ve put in time. Give them an opportunity to also ask, “Can we schedule a call?”

2) They may not have seen your query yet, but with this urgent deadline, they find it, love it, read your book overnight, and email you the next day to schedule a call.

You may have more options. And even if you have six more calls and realize nope, happy with my choice, your first agent may not be your agent forever. They may retire, or not be able to sell your book after all, or not love your next book. You want those other agents to remember “That author I wanted so bad and didn’t get.” Or to think, “This polite, professional author whose last book wasn’t right for me seems like she’d be great to work with.”

Once you decide, you need a few more days to carefully read the agency contract and ask questions. Only then have you achieved the meeting of two minds.

As writers, we spend a lot of time slogging through the rejection trenches, hoping someone will want us. It’s easy to be blown away by the first person who cares, who is invested in our work. Revel in that feeling. Wallow in happiness. But don’t let joy and gratitude stop you from doing business.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. Curious about building platform and using social media? Join Allison and writer Ashleigh Renard for a (free!) 60-minute Zoom Q&A about platform for writers, Tuesday August 11 at 1PM EST/10AM PST. Sign up now!

Read More Bad Writing

July 21, 2020 § 9 Comments

At a renaissance festival, a large male audience volunteer stands on a woman lying on a bed of nails. Another performer stabilizes the standing man.Back when I was a stunt performer, my regular auto mechanic came to a show. After, he said, “I just don’t know how you can figure out which volunteer to bring on stage! How do you know they aren’t going to hurt you or act like a jerk and ruin the show?”

I said, “Bob, how do you know my catalytic converter is the problem without even jacking up my car to look underneath?”

Bob had a lifetime’s wealth of automotive knowledge that let him listen to the car and my description of the problem and figure out what was wrong. I was able to scan a crowd and determine who was actively engaged in the show (leaning forward, laughing, arms uncrossed), who wasn’t going to be a jerk (dad-age or older, here with family and not a gang of male friends), and who was going to play along nicely (already following instructions like ‘everyone say hello!’).

I learned these ways to look at people by picking bad people. I picked drunks who wouldn’t follow directions, smart-asses who tried to steal the show, someone from a religion that did not allow them to shake my hand. Public embarrassment, low tips, and getting dropped on a bed of nails were the immediate, specific feedback I needed to learn to pick audience members who would participate joyfully and let me make them a hero who deserved a round of applause.

As writers, we rarely get that kind of specific and immediate feedback. Form rejections don’t tell us anything beyond “this piece wasn’t right for this journal at this time.” How are we supposed to learn what’s not working in our writing, and make it better, fast?

By reading bad writing.

Overwrought memoirs. Jargon-filled science fiction. Purple-eyed, flowing-haired, has-all-the-powers fantasy. And by reading beginning writing. Early efforts from writers still a little less-skilled than we are. Novels self-published on Amazon by authors whose craft is catching up to their ambition.

Spotting problems in less-sophisticated writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like walking up to a broken car and immediately seeing a flat tire, instead of having to pop the hood and run diagnostics. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our own work and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.

To make reading bad writing a truly useful experience, approach it like an assignment. Read a chapter (or an essay, or a story) and first identify what the author is trying to do.

This chapter introduces the family members and shows each person’s job, their place in the family hierarchy, and how they relate to the narrator.

Pick out anything that is actually working, just as you would if you were sharing a workshop with this author.

I can clearly see the mom and dad’s physical appearance. The sister is likeable and I’d want to spend more time with her. The brother is shown as a bad guy from his interaction with the narrator.

Identify what’s not working. But unlike the reading-for-fun stage where you’d simply say “Ugh!” and chuck the book aside, get specific about why it’s not working.

Huh, if I skim ahead, this all seems like backstory to about page 50. Maybe the hiking trip should be at the beginning? Before that they’re all just hanging out. If we need to know who they are, the two sentences on page 5 are enough about the sister, the incident with the puppy shows us the parents, and maybe just the brother shoving the narrator?

Or

These sentences feel really long and clunky. Oh, look, they all have three or more prepositional phrases…

I’m counting, and there are 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.

Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.

When you know what specifically is wrong, try rewriting a paragraph or two as if you were this author’s editor. (Do not under any circumstances communicate to the writer that you’re doing this. That’s not a favor unless it’s been requested, and unasked-for critique is insulting.) See if you can carry out their original intent, but in better words.

Finally, return to your own writing. Pick one of the problems you saw in the writing you critiqued, and look for that problem in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Is there a word or sentence pattern that sticks out?

Yes, we can absolutely learn good writing from reading good writing. But that often takes a teacher or group to identify the subtleties of craft together. If you’re working alone, reading bad writing helps you learn to spot problems and fix them. As your eye for craft develops, you’ll get better at seeing issues and knowing how to fix them when you read better writing. You’ll notice the one bad sentence in an award-winning book, or a famous author’s overused paragraph structure. You’ll understand how a very popular book’s powerful story is pulling readers through a saggy, under-plotted middle. And you’ll be able to apply these fixes to your own work as your writing improves.

Best of all, while you’re practicing, you don’t have to change a flat tire. Or get dropped on a bed of nails.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her book, Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book is forthcoming from Woodhall Press in March 2021. Join her mailing list for occasional writing tips, adventures and inspiration: sign up here!

Choose Your Own Adventure

July 7, 2020 § 12 Comments

A cover of a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, the Cave of TimeOne of the most talked-about Modern Love columns is 2009’s “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” Laura Munson’s husband says he doesn’t love her anymore. She says she doesn’t buy it, and spends the summer making a happy life for her kids, her husband welcome to join in if he feels like it. Around Thanksgiving, they repair their marriage.

That’s the end of the story.

The essay went viral. Munson wrote a bestselling memoir. The marriage ended anyway. That’s the end of another story, one she’s told in essays and articles.

Mid-divorce, in a bid to save her beloved Montana farm, Munson conceived of hosting Haven writing retreats. She loves the life she has; she’s just published a novel, Willa’s Grove.

Sometimes what makes a happy ending is waiting another year to see what happens next. Or stopping five pages sooner. Memoirists get to choose. We’re obligated to the truth, as fairly as we can tell it, but we don’t have to tell the whole truth.

Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memorists are stuck with what actually happened. But like a novel, a memoir must also engage readers in our problem, give them hope that we will survive and fear that we may not, and finish with power and emotional resonance. While many memoirs don’t have happy endings per se, we can still show ourselves making a choice or taking an action that will lead to a positive outcome, and a little of the hopeful aftermath. We can leave readers with the message, I survived this and I wrote a whole book about it—isn’t that amazing?

If you’re having trouble finishing your memoir, you may not have picked the right place to end…or you may not have lived the end of the story yet.

Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing before writing, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down the truth, checking facts, realizing, that happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior.

Sometimes we can even embrace what happened. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Our past is a rich trove of information. Every terrible detail we tease out to make a novel deeper, every bad experience we use in a good essay, puts us in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m okay with how I got here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.

We get to choose that, too.

Looking for your ending?

Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past has helped you recognize and own it. Terrific! To find the end of your memoir on the page:

  • Identify Protagonist-You’s starting point, and what’s wrong with her life at that time and place, or the journey she’s about to begin.
  • Figure out where in your personal history you fixed that problem, changed that situation, or completed that journey. Chances are good that’s the end of the story.
  • Revise your draft to reflect that dramatic arc. Now that you know the resolution, some scenes and characters will seem more important and others less so. Show the parts important to this resolution; cut down or edit out the things that don’t contribute.

Maybe you’re still living your memoir. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace that makes the past okay. Your story literally hasn’t finished.

  • Flip back through your pages. Can you tell Protagonist-You, “Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better when X happens”? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and change and release yet to come. Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
  • Meanwhile, take action: what would be a satisfying resolution to your journey?
    Write an imaginary final chapter, as if your memoir were a novel. What happens to the protagonist? How has she grown or changed? How is her life different from where she started? Who and what are still in her life? What has been shed or repudiated or forgotten?
  • List the specific steps your protagonist chose to move from problem to resolution. Check off any steps you’ve actually taken in your life. What steps remain to earn the satisfying resolution?
  • Start carrying out those steps. If they seem insurmountable, enlist a trusted friend, a therapist, or even a writing coach to help you choose the change in your life that will conclude your memoir.

Yes, this is a lot like therapy.

But how much better do you want your life to be? How much do you want to finish your book? What would end your story well?

You really do get to choose.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Today on Instagram, she writes about why writing is like circus…and when you’re “good enough.” Click through to read!

Why No-One’s Interacting With You on Twitter

June 23, 2020 § 15 Comments

You have ten minutes, so you open Twitter. No notifications. Your inbox has an auto-message from an author you don’t know, thanking you for following (delete!). You scroll for a few minutes, note the level of political outrage, like a few tweets advertising books (that you’ll never buy but you want to be supportive), retweet a couple of “safe” posts (author quotes, an agent’s advice) and a “writer lift”, and exit, mildly disappointed.

How come nobody talks to me on Twitter? I have #writingcommunity in my bio, I like all my friends’ tweets…maybe I’ll just never be cool enough to get attention on social media.

First, let’s get one thing straight: You do not have to be popular on Twitter to write or sell your book. Twitter is most helpful (but isn’t mandatory!) for how-to/self-help/narrative nonfiction. For memoirists, Twitter can help reach readers, but email newsletters, public speaking, published essays, and Facebook groups (not pages) are all better ways to connect with your audience. For novelists, Twitter is a place to build community, not show how you’ll sell books.

So what do writers do on Twitter?

  • connect with writing idols and industry professionals in a low-stakes way
  • practice writing tight, focused sentences that provoke and engage readers
  • meet other writers and have fun

But Twitter has plenty of unwritten rules, just like every other social arena. Breaking the rules requires deep understanding. For example, if I walk into a Star Trek convention dressed like Henry VIII, I am breaking the rules. If I’m cosplaying as Captain Kirk experiencing historical monarchy in a holodeck, at least some fellow attendees will love me. You don’t have time to learn all the rules, let alone parse that previous sentence, because you need to be writing. So here’s a guide to why people aren’t engaging with you, and what you can do about that.

Technical Troubleshooting

Are you following too many people? “Writer lifts,” in which everyone who responds to a tweet follows everyone else, give us inflated statistics. If Bob Writer has 14.1K followers/15K following, he’s following too many people to meaningfully interact with any of them. Bob’s followers never see his tweets either, because they’re all following too many people. Writer lifts are randomly following to build numbers, not genuinely sharing interests. Follow people you want to read.

Are your followers active? Every time you log on, check ten people on your followers list. If they haven’t tweeted in a month, unfollow. If you value the connection, find where they’re active and meet them there.

Are you active? Twitter’s a weird, bitter, funny, ridiculous community, but you truly do get back what you put in. If you aren’t responding and/or tweeting for a few minutes 3-4 days a week, other people aren’t seeing you.

Better Writing

Think of your audience. Better yet, think of a specific person you interact with on Twitter, and what they react to. We don’t have to be laugh-a-minute, especially right now, but people interact with tweets that move them. Comedy or tears, a moment of thoughtfulness or joy.

Tweet like a writer. Tweak your first draft. Is the question phrased well? Is your joke funny? Do your sentences that begin and end with strong verbs or nouns instead of prepositions or pronouns? Do your best sentence-level work.

Stay positive. Avoid whining about publishing (or anything else). Ask, “Is this complaint because I personally feel hard-done-by, or is there a larger group or principle at stake?” Then decide whether you want to express rage, bring up a legit issue to discuss, or quip about knowing you’re riled up over something silly. If you can, suggest a solution, or ask for information, instead of just venting.

Take part in conversations that mean something to you. Avoid begging for attention. Tweets like “is anyone out there?” or “I guess I’m not important enough to get likes” are unappealing. Start a discussion with a question.

Skip the ads. Sharing your newly published essay (with a quote, or a sentence about your process or motivation) is great. Sharing your great review, or “hey I published a book today!” gets likes. Posting repeatedly about your book for sale is tedious, and people will unfollow. Spend that time submitting articles or essays that tie into your book, and brag about those instead of another commercial.

Better Engagement

When you retweet, comment. It’s fine to just RT, but try to more often have something to say about what you’re sharing. Why you liked it. What makes this author or article important. How that joke made you feel. Even an emoji helps connect.

Find a couple of accounts that are just for fun, like reading the comics pages. I’m a fan of @AITA_reddit (some adult material), and I see other online friends in that feed. Responding to their comments there gives us a low-stakes interaction, and they’re more likely to see my other tweets. Literary agents and high-profile, fascinating writers like Chuck Wendig, John Scalzi, Tayari Jones and C. Spike Trotman often have regular commenters, and you can get to know other writers in discussions.

Adjust Your Expectations

Building connections with readers and fellow writers takes time. My social media helped me get a book deal…after spending five years building bridges to readers through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, blogging and a newsletter. But I’m not there to rack up numbers. I’m there to share information, make connections, answer questions, and practice writing in those formats. It wasn’t the numbers that got me the deal, it was the behavior. We often dismiss social media as frivolous or shallow, and yes, wide swaths of it are. But Twitter also holds professional camaraderie, writing-process and publishing support, and literary news. Truly connecting on Twitter takes time, and genuine interest in the community—exactly like connecting anywhere else.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Twitter for writing tips, publishing news, and fabulous GIFs.

Nobody Cares About Your Dead

June 16, 2020 § 28 Comments

I read a lot of not-yet-published memoirs. As an editor, I’m sometimes the first stop after the first draft:

I needed to write about the crazy year I had. Should I keep working on it?

Sometimes I’m a last resort:

I’ve queried 100 agents and nobody wants my book. Should I just self-publish?

The answer is always another question:

What does your book do for the reader?

Memoir already lacks suspense. We lose the novelist’s standby of “will this character make it?” We know you survived—you wrote a book about it. Most of us are not such brilliant writers that our shining prose fascinates regardless of the subject. Most of us are working hard to raise our storytelling skills to the level of the story’s own power, because raw trauma is not enough.

But there’s a shortcut.

Write a book that does something for the reader.

Write the book that beautifully expresses the pain of your addiction, or the trauma of your childhood, or the desperation of your divorce, but revise it to directly help the reader. Beyond “my story is universal.” Beyond “people need to know this situation exists.”

Yes, one of the gifts of memoir is showing readers “you’re not the only one who felt like this.” But unless we are writing National Book Award-level prose, our personal pain is not enough, no matter how honestly we express it. When a promising manuscript veers from story into eulogy, I sometimes howl internally:

…nobody cares about your kid!
…nobody cares about your pet!
…nobody cares about your dead relative!

Readers are sympathetic, but sympathy for a stranger’s problems doesn’t last 285 pages. Transforming your painful (or joyful!) experience into a book that sells means tying your problem directly to the reader’s own experience, using your writing skill and personal credentials. This does not mean writing self-help, but showing specific, actionable steps the reader might be inspired to take.

What does “do something for the reader” look like in practice?

  • Medical memoir: My dad died and it was horrifying and Mom was no help at all and here’s how I navigated a medical system designed to rip us off, and what I learned about myself and about Medicare. Also, I’m hilarious.

The reader gets: OMG my parent had funny death stuff too and I felt so bad laughing but it’s OK to laugh, and wow, I don’t have to pay that bill!

  • Death of a child memoir: My kid died and it was horrifying and here’s how I lived in a fantasy world where drug abuse didn’t look like my kid, and what I learned. Also, I’m a brilliant writer.

I’m not the only one who missed the signs and I don’t have to feel dumb and guilty because I see why she did too, and wow! That paragraph puts my grief into words!

  • Death of a pet memoir: My dog died and it was sad and here’s what I learned about alternative pet medicine, when to stop medical intervention, and how I knew it was time to let her go. Also, I’m a veterinarian with stories about how others knew when to treat their pet or let them go.

I’m not a terrible pet owner for not buying another kidney for Princess, and wow! Now I have specific ways to process my grief without hearing “it’s only a dog”!

  • Family memoir: My grandchild is precocious and I taught myself how to talk about climate change and human destructiveness without crushing a child’s spirit. Also, I’m an educator and will fill you with hope.

I don’t have to be a scientist to have an age-appropriate conversation with my six-year-old about human extinction, and wow! I’m a little more hopeful myself!

Take a look at your own manuscript:

  • Is the first chapter backstory and exposition because “No one will understand my family if I don’t tell our history”? We are not as unique as we think. That’s why memoir is “universal.” Cut those pages. Get the reader hooked emotionally. Identify your problem that might also be their problem. Fill in backstory later as needed.
  • Got more than two pages in a row about how great someone was, or what living with them was like? A eulogy is not a story. Cut to the best paragraph or the most significant gesture. Show them through actions. Put their greatness in context with your problem. My husband was so thoughtful, when I was widowed I didn’t know how to pay the electric bill and here’s how I navigated that. Or, My dog was so amazing I had to learn how to grieve an animal when she died and here’s what I did.
  • Is how you tell your story inspiring, hopeful, or educational? Not textbook or self-help, but can readers productively channel your experience to walk away as better people?

H is for Hawk* teaches readers about falconry and processing grief through new experience. Wild inspires taking a physical journey to purge our past. How to Be Black examines American racism through a personal lens, and the lessons are truly absorbed through comedy.

Pour out your love and tragedy and joy in words. Maybe you’ll have a 285-page eulogy. Maybe it’ll be the first draft of a book you sell. For readers, honoring your dead is not enough. Not your dead mom, your dead kid or your dead dog. Write to honor your love and your kin. Revise to do something for the reader.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Instagram for writing advice, travel adventures, and workshop and retreat announcements.

*Just FYI, H is for Hawk is on sale right now (4.99 Kindle) if you’ve been meaning to read it, and How to Be Black is free right now with Kindle Unlimited.

Author Website 101

June 2, 2020 § 11 Comments

Walt Whitman knows his best side

More than one Brevity guest blogger has woken up to an email from me saying, “Your blog is up this morning, I grabbed an author photo from your website and made up a quick bio from what I could find, let me know if the bio isn’t quite right.”

In my other life, managing events, I’ve heard complaints from variety performers: “The newspaper picked a photo off my website of me wearing glasses—I never wear my glasses when I’m performing!” Or, “They put my real name instead of Wacky Wilma!”

Well, Wacky Wilma, your legal name was on your website, under the bespectacled photo of you.

Editors, reporters, and the administrative assistants whose job it is to compile press releases, programs and brochures don’t have time to search for your favorite photo, or to carefully cut your bio from six paragraphs to 50 words using only your most-prestigious publications.

The number-one way to avoid displeasure or delay in the information you want representing you in the world? Make that the easiest information to find.

One way to make it easy to find is to make an author website. You do not need to be famous or important to have your own website. You do not even need to be published. Your website functions as your business card:

  • Provides a way to contact you
  • Shows who you are and what you do
  • Provides information, including a photo, that a publication or organization can use to accompany or promote your work
  • Links to any publications
  • If you use social media, links to your profiles
  • If you have anything for sale, makes it EASY to give you money

An author website doesn’t have to be expensive. Yes, you can spend four figures on a designer, logo, your own domain, hosting, etc, etc. Or you can put up a WordPress site for free in an afternoon. (Here’s a rundown and reviews on some of the most popular build-your-own website services.)

The key elements of your website:

An author photo you love that is at least 500KB. It’s easy to shrink a photo that’s too large, but very difficult to blow up a small photo without it looking pixelated or grainy. 500KB-2MB is a good size range for a quick-loading website with usable photos.

Make your headshot reasonably current—if we see you at a conference, we should be able to recognize you without a time machine. Author photos these days tend to be casual and with a “real” background rather than a photographic backdrop. That means a good selfie often works just fine. Here’s a Brevity blog of tips for getting a good author photo. Put on a solid-colored top, stand next to a window with natural daylight, and take 50 selfies. After the first ten, it will stop feeling silly. Somewhere in there will be one photo you like. Hate all photos of you? Try Melissa Ballard’s author photo style.

No photos you don’t love. Allison’s Law: if you have ONE photo you don’t like on your website, that will be the photo everyone picks.

An easy to copy-paste bio. Allison’s Second Law: if the editor cuts down your bio, they will leave out your favorite credit. Put a short, 1-3 sentence bio on your front page, and a longer bio on the “About” page.

Links to any social media/newsletter/etc. Put your casual ways to keep in touch, because how often are you really going to update that website? And triple-check that any “Contact” form submissions arrive in your inbox.

Where to buy or read your work. Link to posted essays and articles, and any books you have for sale (anthologies count!). This is also a great time to save PDFs of any online publications, because one day their website will go out of business and your link won’t work.

If you are still working on publishing credits, include links to:

  • Books by writer friends
  • Literary organizations you support
  • Books that have informed your work, or that you enjoyed
  • Resources for writers and readers

Even if a website isn’t on your list right now, websearch “[your name] + writer” and see what comes up. Anything you’d like to track down and remove? When I search myself, the top five photos are all professional shots I’d be happy to see printed. My middle initial avoids confusing me with the actor or the Miss West Virginia with the fake sex tapes. Sure, some photos that aren’t me come up—pics I’ve posted on Twitter, or that also appear on a webpage I’m featured on, but it’s pretty clear I’m not the guy holding the headless chicken.

Finally, don’t stress too much. Do your best to make the information you want available, easily, but know that people will still get it wrong. One of my favorite newspaper front pages was me, eating fire, with my stage name in a faux tattoo Sharpie-d on my arm: “ISABELLA.”  The caption directly beneath says, “Isobel eating fire.”

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her new comedy playscript for video chat, The Next Horseman, is now available in paperback and ebook.

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