The Acclimatization Climb: Reframing the Rejection Letter

November 30, 2020 § 10 Comments

By Michele Genest

My sister-in-law is just starting to think about submitting stories to magazines. When we were chatting about our writing the other day I told her I’d been collecting rejection letters lately, and quoted John Haggerty, founding editor of Forge Literary Magazine, who said rejection was the default state of the writer.

Barb said, “The default state! If that’s the default state, isn’t there another word we could use? Something more positive than ‘rejection’?”

I thought back to the trek around the Dhaulagiri Massif in Nepal my husband and I had undertaken a few years ago.

“How about ‘acclimatization’?”

Barb said, “Explain.”

*

On Day Eleven we reached Italian Camp, about 12,000 feet above sea level, and were five days away from climbing to French Pass; at 17,500 feet, our highest pass. At breakfast on Day Twelve, Scott, an informal leader in our small group, announced that in consultation with our guides, he was renaming our “rest” days. We would now be calling them “acclimatization” days.

“In other words,” he said, “We will not rest today. Today we will hike up to 13,000 feet, to acclimatize for tomorrow, when we will reach nearly 14,000 feet.” So we abandoned our plans for washing socks, reading, snoozing in the sun and drinking tea, and set off on our acclimatization climb.

For the first time on this trek, air was hard to get. Inhales were frequent and deep, exhales hurried, to get to the next inhale. Scott said it might be a good idea to push it, go a little faster, expand our lungs. And so we pushed it, moved a little faster, breathed a little harder. And it felt like pushing, pushing, against a block of resistance with our chests.

We reached a stony plateau, the end of our hike, and stretched out on the ground. Our guide Devi attached bright new prayer flags to a faded, tattered sling of flags strung between two ancient cairns. Choughs flew at eye level up the valley, across the flanks of Dhaulagiri peaks One, Two and Three, their black backs shining in the sun.

In a small hollow we found wild rosehips, as big as apples.

We rested for a while in the thin, clear air, and turned to go back down.

The next day we climbed to 14,000 feet, one foot after another, breathing carefully, and reached Japanese camp in good time and in good shape.

*

When I finished the story, Barb said, “Yes!

We decided: we would rename “rejection” letters. They would now become  “acclimatization” letters—not a rejection, just a moment to pause, do some squats, hoist our knapsacks onto our backs, get back on the path, expand our lungs, and climb to the next height. 

There, we will hang prayer flags.

We will watch choughs fly at eye level, shining in the sun.

We will find rosehips, as big as apples.

___

Michele Genest lives and writes in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Her work has been published in Geist Magazine and national newspapers. She is co-editor of two anthologies of Yukon writing, Urban Coyote and Urban Coyote New Territory. She is currently writing a memoir set on a Greek island and in Toronto in the 1980s. Find Michele at borealgourmet.com.

How Writers Can Make the Most of a Pandemic Winter

November 18, 2020 § 13 Comments

By Sweta Srivastava Vikram

It’s been raining nonstop in NYC as I write this essay. I am a sunshine-loving woman and the relentless downpour (We have had a wet week) dries up my creative juices. It makes me unnecessarily mellow and puts out my creative fire. I like being able to go for a walk in the woods or stroll in the park close to home to tap into my inner voice and connect with the stories that matter. 

Denial: Being homebound these past few days, I said to my husband, “You sure we weren’t transported to London one night while we were asleep?” Nothing seems strange or impossible in 2020. Because I remember autumn as a crisp and bright season in NYC, not grey and wet like the weather across the pond that our London friends and family complain about. Imagine what winter will be like?

Acceptance: Once I let the rant out of my system, I ordered a few brightening and heating lamps for our apartment. Because either you change your situation (which I can’t at this time) or your attitude around it. 2020 has taught us all that so much of our survival and sanity is dependent on our mindset. We are stuck in the pandemic for a long haul…sometimes, with awful weather. We can either accept it with grace or fight a battle with no outcome in sight.

Innovation: I can’t write on the couch. I can’t work on the floor. So, I carved out an intimate corner for my creative work, which is well-lit and has a space heater for my feet to stay warm. It also has close access to the kitchen—literally five seconds—for the numerous cups of chai I need. I, for one, have not returned to working from coffee shops or a co-working space. I don’t see writing residencies or writing retreats in my near future. I live in a NYC apartment, so the space is not something you will read about in an architectural magazine. But I love that it’s all mine for my writing. In this nook, I don’t work my day job. None of my virtual speaking engagements or client coaching happen in my writing space. No one else is allowed to sit in my writing chair. I show up here every day with gratitude in my heart.  

Meaningfulness: I view this pandemic as an opportunity to connect with our individual selves and society-at-large. It’s an unintended but profound mindfulness practice. When the days get shorter and colder and our ability to go out and see people (even if from a distance) becomes reduced, writers can rely on the company of their words. While 2020 has been brutal and unpreceded, it’s given us writers a lot of material to work with. If you feel too close to it, the timing seems uncomfortable, and it makes you anxious, don’t start to write. The brain is still collecting information. It’s percolating, fermenting, and processing. These are all vital limbs of the writing process. 

Association: I also remind myself that writing is like yoga asanas and meditation—you show up daily with dedication without any attachment to the outcome. Some days will be prolific; other days, will be null. But show up because having a habit and purpose can help us feel connected. Be fine with all days not being the same. Be okay with not hammering yourself to produce a daily quota of words. Befriend writing on a deeper level. Sit with the discomfort but don’t pressure yourself to churn out pages after pages. Being a writer doesn’t just mean tapping away at the keyboard or scribbling in your journal all day. All these experiences will stay with you. When the time is right, you will write. This approach ultimately reassures me that I will always be a writer (whether I am writing a book or being creative with a social media post), so it eliminates any fear associated with my identity as a writer and encourages me to show up to writing daily.

I interviewed three women writers who live in different countries—Canada, United Kingdom, and the United States—to get their input on how we, the writers, can make the most of a pandemic winter….no matter which place we call home.

London-based Sejal Sehmi, IT consultant and UK editor of Brown Girl Magazine, said, “Being in the midst of the pandemic especially in the winter is sure to arouse a lot of anxiety and uncertainty – much as what I myself have suffered during the peak of the lockdown. But it’s also a time that these fears can also give way to suppressed emotions which sometimes can only be articulated in words. Make it a point, at some time in the day, to keep a regular routine of writing something, anything, even if it’s just a Dear Diary moment. Early mornings, whilst I appreciate it is more challenging because of the shorter days to come, I feel is the best time to jot anything that comes to mind down on paper/journal. Once this becomes a routine, your creative juices in its own time will naturally build something you will enjoy reading back on.”

Sehmi further suggested something I can’t live without either: “Meditation can play an integral part to having a clear focused head and be mindful of looking for creativity even within the four walls we are surrounded by. We often spend so long seeking inspiration from the outside world and forget how close to home it actually is. This is the time, more than ever to use our words to self-heal and self-comfort.”

Another poignant suggestion comes from Seattle-based Joyce Yarrow, author of Zahara and the Lost Books of Light (Adelaide Books, NY/Lisbon). “When I think about being a house-bound writer during this pandemic, what comes to mind are the many books written by authors while serving time in prison. Although the majority of these ‘prisoner-authors’ have little in common with me—I am not a convicted thug, thief, kidnapper and rapist like Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur—there are some I greatly admire, such as Nelson Mandela (Conversations with Myself) and Piper Kerman (Orange is the New Black). The bottom line is that I’ve always admired people who are able to transcend their surroundings and create a safe place in which to be creative. Whether we confine ourselves willingly or are sequestered by circumstance, developing the ability to visualize and create worlds that we literally wish into being is a gift to be treasured. And by nurturing our gratitude for this gift, we can not only survive—we can thrive.”

Anita Kushwaha, author of Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters, Harper Avenue, said, “When we went into lockdown here in Ottawa back in March, like so many of us, my creativity took a nosedive. I couldn’t focus for long enough to write or even read. After a while, though, writing became my haven from the uncertainty of the world. At first, things moved slowly. But in time, the pace picked up and I even managed to complete a new manuscript over the span of the next five months. (Fast for me.) Now that we’re in the second wave of the pandemic, writing has once again become a kind of sanctuary for me, a place where I can go and have at least some control over what happens. My one suggestion? Observe and embrace the changes in your creative process, find new ways that work for you, and cut yourself some slack if you aren’t meeting your own expectations in terms of output. We’re all living through something incredibly challenging at the moment. Good luck and keep going!”

While we are ALL in the pandemic together, we are still individuals with our own strengths and struggles and hesitations. Figure out what works for you and your creative process this winter. 

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ~ Octavia E. Butler

___

Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi and certified Ayurveda health coach, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe. She also teaches yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as well incarcerated men and women. Find her on: TwitterInstagramLinkedIn, and Facebook.

How Will Your Memoir Sell?

October 29, 2020 § 6 Comments

Do you need a platform to sell a book?

Read that question again. Not as “Do you need a PLATFORM to sell a book,” but as “Do YOU need a platform to sell a book?”

We usually think of “platform” as “social media.” But there are literary platforms and mass-media platforms, too. Some memoirs sell on powerful writing alone.

How do you know if yours is one of them?

Memoirs fit roughly into four categories, and each category needs different elements to sell. Yes, a strong social-media platform can be one of those elements, but it’s not the only one. Let’s break it down:

Voice-Driven memoirs are collections of anecdotes, essays or loosely-connected stories. David Sedaris falls into this category, as does Jenny Lawson—authors we want to spend time with, to enjoy whatever story they want to tell because they’re telling it. Comedians’ memoirs are also in this category. Their plot might be “I grew up, I worked hard and then I got famous,” but we want to hear that story from the person inside it.

Character-Driven memoirs are often generational family stories through the eyes of the narrator, like The Glass Castle or The Liar’s Club. Or the reader navigates a particular situation or time in close concert with the narrator, as in The Year of Magical Thinking. The journey is through time and personal change, rather than up a mountain or around the world.

Plot-Driven memoirs focus on a journey, from Point A to Point B. There’s usually a physical element: sometimes these are places on a map, as in Wild; sometimes the journey is through addiction, or traveling from sickness to health as in Porochista Khakpour’s Sick.

Personal Record memoirs survey a place, culture or time. Orange is the New Black (women’s prison), Kitchen Confidential (professional cooking), and Maximum City (Bombay) each encapsulate the writer’s personal intersection with a larger phenomenon. “Legacy” books—collections of family letters, parent biographies, community histories—fall in this category.

The sellability of each type of memoir—to agents, publishers, and ultimately readers—tends to spring from these elements:

Voice-Driven Memoir: Come Spend Time with Me

  • Personal Fame from public speaking or a public career like theatre, dance or politics.
  • A unique, consistent, often funny, voice.
  • Mass-Media Platform: publications in newspapers and newsstand magazines.
  • Social-Media Platform: a high-engagement blog with hundreds of comments per post, or social-media accounts that regularly receive thousands of likes.

 

Character-Driven Memoir: Personal Change, Beautiful Writing

  • Excellent writing with a strong narrative voice.
  • Deep insight into oneself and the human condition, expressed on the page.
  • A “hot essay”—a literary or mass-media publication that draws wide attention.
  • Literary connections: teachers and workshop leaders who promote you to their agent and publisher, and will blurb your book.
  • Literary platform: a body of work in literary journals and upscale mass-media; places at selective residencies; literary awards and contest wins.

 

Plot-Driven Memoir: The Journey Is the Story

  • Newsworthiness of your journey, especially if a physical journey has been reported in mass media or an internal journey is related to an emerging hot topic.
  • Cultural relevance of your journey, like a significant generational, ethnic, or gender experience.
  • A “hot essay”
  • Literary platform

 

Personal Record: My Experience with an Interesting World

  • Self-publication and niche-marketing to the community the book is about (your relatives, a geographical area, etc.), though traditional publishing is also an option.
  • Cultural relevance, especially if you are an expert on or native of a world that’s becoming newsworthy or topical.
  • Social-Media Platform, including incredible visuals that invite readers into the world OR
  • Mass-Media Platform, especially regular publication in niche venues about your world, such as popular travel or cooking websites OR
  • Literary platform if your writing is voice-driven.

 

You don’t need to tick off every element in your category. But the more you can achieve, the better your chances of selling your memoir.

If you want to focus primarily on your writing, you’ll need to consciously improve your craft, seek publication in top-notch journals, and cultivate ongoing connections with your teachers. If your physical journey is the fascinating part, try to interest a reporter in your story, or learn to pitch to mass media yourself. If you want to build readership online until you reach critical mass, make improving your reach and content on social media a large part of your writing practice, and write a book that makes social media a positive contribution to your time.

As Jane Friedman says, “Everyone has a meaningful story to tell, but not everyone’s story (or writing) will find an agent or receive a commercial publishing deal.” Your book is worth writing. If you want to sell it, start educating yourself now on how that’s likely to happen, and how you’re cultivating and connecting with the readers who need your book.

Need more platform information? Want to know how to build an audience with or without social media? Join Allison K Williams and Ashleigh Renard for The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A Zoom chat today at 1PM EST (recording will be available). Always free. Sign up here to receive the zoom link.

 

Tone Deaf

October 27, 2020 § 4 Comments

I’m not writing this for you. You already know better. I’m writing this so you can forward it to that friend of yours. You know. The one who keeps tagging you in social media posts about her book? The author who, every time you mention you’re looking for something new to read, offers an Amazon link? Who responds to every question even remotely related to her topic with “I wrote a book about that!” blatting away like a lone trumpet in the middle of a string quartet.

Yes, marketing statistics show that people have to hear about your book seven times, in seven different places, before they decide to buy it. But tone-deaf self-promotion does not create a pleasant memory of Oh I should purchase this book. Repeated advertising in social settings creates resentment and irritation, and as I wrote here a while ago, irritation doesn’t sell anything.

Yes, we should be proactive. Yes we should be unafraid to share the news—the wonderful news!—that we have published a book and wouldn’t our friends love to support us? Our friends do want to support us. They just don’t want to do it every day.

Here is how much marketing support you can reasonably expect from your friends:

One retweet.

Two mentions to their real-life friends that you have written a book and it is nifty.

From your extra-best awesome writer-friends: one retweet, one Instagram post, one book review written to Amazon and copy-pasted to Goodreads. More than that is doing God’s work.

From close relatives, and from people who would like to have sex with you: physically walking into a bookstore and ordering one, even two copies of your book.

From your local newspaper: a brief mention of your reading at a local bookstore. Because “Hey, I wrote a book” just isn’t all that newsworthy.

For the press, consider writing PR (or having your insanely expensive publicist write PR) that expresses how your book ties into popular culture right now. Or the problem many people have that your book solves or addresses. Maybe even your unique story about writing the book, if you triumphed over adversity or accomplished a life goal. Not just about your book.

But you can’t send a press release to all your friends. Not even an advertisement disguised as a Facebook comment.

The two best ways to get people interested in your recently published book are to make yourself look like an expert, and show them how your topic is directly relevant to their lives. You do this by offering assistance. For example, if your Facebook friend has a problem that you know how to solve and that is also related to your book, answer their question. Solve their problem. Direct them to another resource that is not your book for more information. At the end of all that assistance, note somewhat self-effacingly, I also wrote a book about this, and here’s the link in case you want to look it up. The product is an afterthought in your service to your friend.

Author Karen DeBonis has a great technique for talking about your topic without talking about your book every time. She has set a Google alert for one of the topics of her book, “people-pleasing.” When she sees a quality article related to people-pleasing, she can tweet or post the link, with a quote from the article and some commentary from Karen about why this information is useful, or how she identifies with it. (Here’s how to set up a Google Alert)

This is double literary citizenship! You’re promoting the writer of the article you’re linking to, and increasing interest in your own topic. You’re helping establish your own expertise, or that you are at least a clearinghouse for this information. When someone has a people-pleasing-related question, they’ll remember, Gosh, I bet Karen knows the answer, and come to her. Then she can answer their immediate question, and gently direct them towards her book. If her book is not out yet, she has incurred gratitude. She has made a deposit in the Bank of Goodwill, which can be redeemed when the time comes to purchase, review or post about her book.

None of this is “being clever on Twitter,” though that can help. It’s not “have a million Insta followers,” though that can help, too. This is doing service you already know how to do, to genuinely connect with people affected by a topic about which you care deeply enough to have written a book.

Self promotion is not self service. Yes, fanfare the news of your new book from the rooftops. But also gently play the symphony of support, solutions, and expertise for your grateful listeners.

______________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her and Ashleigh Renard for The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A on Zoom. This Thursday at 1PM Eastern is the Ask Us Anything Halloween Party—costumes optional, bring your burning questions about platform, promotion and social media. If you’re on the list, you’ll get the link, or sign up 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.

_____________________________________________
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.

“Is Your Book Done Yet?” A Reply to Eager Readers’ Inquiries

October 2, 2020 § 11 Comments

By Margaret Moore

The book is not done yet because there is a certain process that goes into successfully crafting a book, and the process, which I intend to follow, maintains that I must produce several drafts, moving my memoir from a really rough, unfocused sketch of a portion of my life to a pointed, purposeful plot that demonstrates a very specific idea about life, and, to achieve this, I must create outlines with proposed content, angles, and approaches, and then I must write drafts based on those outlines, and there are days where I open the draft I wrote the previous day only to realize that the narrative does not work from a craft standpoint, so I cut paragraphs and even entire pages as I hold my breath and try to remember that I can always go back to it if whatever I write in its place doesn’t work, and then I work up new drafts, and I eventually come to be enthralled with one or perhaps a few of those drafts and I work on fine-tuning and polishing those pages, and then I get to the point of satisfaction with them, so I submit them to my faculty mentors, fellow students, and writer friends, and they give me in-depth feedback on what could be clearer, elaborated on, and added to make the piece stronger, and that inspires me to make more outlines and new versions of the piece, and then the process repeats a few times as I develop new pages and revisions, and, by the way, I only just started my MFA in Creative Writing and this is really the first time ever that I have been able to work on writing and the memoir full-time without having other disciplines to attend to, and I’m finally feeling like I’m getting somewhere serious with it, and, hopefully, in about two years, I will have a manuscript that I can submit to gurus in editing and publishing, but then I will have to take their suggestions into consideration and go through more rounds of revisions until it is publication-ready, and, I have not looked too far into this stage yet—I’m taking it one step at a time—but I expect that I will work with my publishers to proof galleys to make sure the memoir looks the way it should before it goes to print, and there might be marketing details to attend to, and whatever else, and then the book will eventually be released, and, yes, this is an extremely long process—definitely lengthier than I expect it to be for future books simply because this is my first book—but I assure you, it has been tried and proven effective by many established authors and, in the end, you will have a high-quality book authored by me in your hands.
___

Margaret Moore graduated Fairfield University Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing in May of 2020.  Her work has appeared in Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy and Independent Catholic News among other publications.  She is now working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University.

Gotham Writers Conference: A New Author Meets Agent Model

September 7, 2020 § 2 Comments

By Josh Sippie

Writing conferences can be kind of daunting. I spent about half a decade going to various conferences across the Eastern seaboard as an eager attendee, relishing my 2.5 minutes of facetime with editors and agents, and awkwardly trying to start conversations with writers because we had one thing for sure in common—we were both writers. Whether it was a conference for book-length projects or just slinging essays about tattoos or poor choices made as a teenager, I felt like my success as a writer would be won or lost in the hallowed halls of a generic hotel-turned-conference-space.

But it got to the point when I started to feel like they just weren’t doing it anymore. Those 2.5 minutes didn’t amount to success, and it seemed like they were all blending together into the same experiences. Fortunately, I found myself eventually in a position to make a difference. As the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers, I wanted to make a conference that could make a difference. Only I wasn’t exactly sure how, only that I knew what I wanted from a conference, and assumed others would want the same.

So I reached out to the people that attract writers to conferences—agents and editors. And I asked them what they would want to see from a conference. My logic was if we could make the “talent” happy, we could make the attendees happy as well. After all, you can only see so many panels before they start to repeat. I know I’m not alone when I say that I attended conferences with the hopes of making a connection to further my writing endeavors.

Their response surprised me—they hated conferences. Many saw them as a “rite of passage” for newer agents and editors, to get their feet wet in the industry. They highlighted any number of things that writing conferences did that drove them crazy and begging for the end of the day. So I asked them what would make that different, what would get them excited about a conference.

That got a better response. They didn’t want quick pitches, they wanted to educate. They wanted quality projects. They also wanted a decent lunch break.

Thus, the Gotham Writers Conference was born. A conference for book-length projects of nonfiction and fiction alike. Rather than speed dating 10 agents hoping to strike gold, we’re giving writers the chance to make a genuine connection. And, in turn, that allows us to line up some of the best agents in the business. We divide writers into “pitching roundtables” where they spend four hours with up to eight other writers in their genre, as well as two top agents in that genre. In that four hours, everyone will go over their first few pages and query letter or nonfiction book proposal. If it sparks a connection—great. We had writers land their agent in our first ever conference last year. But the goal here is to put writers in a better place after the conference so that they are better equipped to find an agent on their own.

With the individualized attention, writers leave their table knowing how to move themselves forward with their writing career, because there isn’t always going to be a conference there… as we are unfortunately learning in the times of COVID.
__

Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The GuardianThe Writer MagazineMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyHobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.

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!

My Memoir is Hibernating

July 22, 2020 § 9 Comments

Vicki LindnerBy Vicki Lindner

In December of last year, I finished my ‘60s memoir, Baby, It’s You. (I won’t admit how long “finishing” took.) Then I placed the 300-page manuscript in a black plastic box and buried it in my walnut cabinet. Here, I thought, Baby could rest like a tulip bulb waiting to bloom —for three months.

When Alan, a writer friend, asked how “Baby” was going, (hesitantly, as if inquiring how many millimetres a melting glacier has shrunk), I said, “It’s done.”

“Wow,” Alan said, “Congratulations! Are you sending it out?” And I confessed I wasn’t, not yet. I’d come to understand that I sent my stuff to likely prospects all too soon, and only after rejections popped into my inbox, realized that the manuscript needed work—from cutting and shaping to re-imagining. And if that was true of an essay or short story it would likely be truer for the monster snoozing in the black box. Despite compulsive revisions, I told Alan, “Baby” was too vast for my limited literary vision to take in just yet.

Alan said that failure to “see” new work applied to his process too. As it does, I think, to many writers. We finish, so full of hubris, trepidation, even boredom, in such a hurry to “succeed” or to “win” that we gulp down encouraging feedback from other writers and forget the endurance that writing, the toughest extreme sport, demands. “Patient sustained labor,” Vivian Gornick called it.

That was one truth, but I faced another, more psychological: I’d been nurturing “Baby” so long that to throw the infant to sharp-toothed critics in cold publishing waters seemed like diving naked into the Arctic Ocean myself. And I admit, writing the memoir had transported me back to the ‘60s, a transformative era, more rewarding than the current one, enmeshed as it is in this global pandemic.

So I called Melissa, a wise Montana poet and essayist. She, too, asked about my memoir. I explained that “Baby” was hibernating like a Grizzly in winter. Melissa loves bears, but she didn’t exclaim, as Alan did, “Good idea.” Then I raised a painful topic—the time I refused to resubmit my short story collection to a contest, in which it had been a finalist, after the judge strongly suggested I should, assuring me that the book didn’t need more and better stories as I insisted. (No, I didn’t rush to the psychoanalyst Junot Diaz recommends for all writers.) And now, after years of kicking myself for not exploring my fear of rejection, I asked Melissa, “Am I doing what I did with the contest by putting my memoir down for a long winter’s nap?”

“YES,” she answered without missing a beat.

But though I did self-destruct by not resubmitting the story collection, I still thought I should give my memoir time to ferment. Nobody was clamoring to publish it in a pandemic. And it focused on a subject that could benefit from additional thought—a taboo relationship, which helped the teenaged girl I was in the memoir to jettison the ‘50s stifling script. Plus an agent had told me what I already knew: My first chapter sucked.

After revision I’d called that chapter “good,” but needed time and space to be sure. Another question: Had I figured out what my father—a munitions expert who’d conceptualized weapons systems for the Vietnam War—was doing in this work? After three months of thinking instead of pretending to think by re-writing compulsively, I knew.

But back to “Baby”, germinating in the cabinet. While waiting for the proverbial tulip to bloom, I wrote shorter works, a new short story, an essay, and my morning prompts — “comments” to The New York Times. And I kept reading relevant books and stuffing notes in the black box.

Then came the early spring day I’d vowed to awaken “Baby” from torpor. I duly extracted the closeted box, and forbidding myself swings between depression and elation, pencil-edited the manuscript. I’d been right to wait. How had the best chapters turned into the worst ones? With refreshed vision I saw countless passages that would shine after tightening, or in some cases, loosening; I empowered verbs and batted away pesky commas. Most important, I judiciously developed essential ideas and remodeled misshapen sentences. Then I began typing my handwritten edits into the computer, seeing more opportunities for betterment. (But when I caught myself changing new words back to the old ones I knew it was time to stop.) The governor’s stay-at-home orders, I guiltily admit, proved a gift, though some days I stared into space, immobilized by anxious inertia. Ultimately my apartment lockdown revealed that I needed to let go of the past as who could say how long my present would last.

Now I’m about to mail the manuscript to a few friends who’ve agreed to read it. Then I will write a query, the hardest part.

And when “Shelter-at-Home” turned to “Safer-at-Home,” I visited Tess, my new Jungian shrink.
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Vicki Lindner writes memoir, personal essays, and short fiction in Denver, Colorado, where she also teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her essays have been published by Gastronomica, American Literary Review, In Short: An Anthology of Brief Nonfiction, Seneca Review, Shadowboxmagazine.org, New Writing, Western Humanities Review, and others She has won two Wyoming Fellowships for Creative Nonfiction, a National Endowment for the Arts for fiction, and two New York State fellowships, also for fiction.

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