November 13, 2018 § 17 Comments
Sir, you don’t have to tell us the whole story. It’s enough to say “novel” or “memoir” or “blog post” and how many words or what goal you’re—
Fiction or nonfiction? Well, what’s your book about? There’s computers? And you’re creating a character like you… That’s fiction. No, it doesn’t matter if it’s set in the real world, as soon as you start making stuff up, it’s fiction. I mean, unless you’re writing memoir and being honest about fuzzy memories. But I’ve never seen a bookstore shelf labeled “Fiction but Also Nonfiction.”
Sure, I can give you a couple tips. Let’s just get everyone else started and—
Yes, planning a story is hard. You might find this website useful, it breaks down a traditional three-act structure, using The Hunger Games.
Oh, you’re an engineer so you think differently. You don’t understand the “theory” of writing. Well, I wouldn’t really call this a “theory,” it’s more that certain dramatic structures show up in most stories, based on human archetypes. So if you’re writing nonfiction, you might look for events that tie into a traditional dramatic structure, and if you’re writing a novel, you get to make those events up, and the structure is a guide and can help with ideas.
Well I guess I could explain it differently—what’s that?
You want to write a bestseller.
You need to know how to write a bestseller because if you’re going to put your time in, you want it to be worthwhile.
Hang on while I take a couple of very deep breaths with my eyes closed.
You’re still here?
No, following this structure won’t guarantee you a bestseller. It’s a tool. Like when you write code, you can’t guarantee the end-users will love the product, but you can use your knowledge of how users have interacted with previous apps to build the next one.
There’s no magic button. If there was a formula for bestsellers, publishers would only accept books that would be big hits and writers would write them every time.
Oh goodness, that coffee just went right in your lap! I hope I haven’t boiled anything. Just keep writing, everyone!
Yes, that management book was a bestseller, and he did write it quickly. Did you know he’s a public speaker who does events for thousands of people, and has been writing a very popular blog for years? Some authors have what we call a “platform,” but that’s only for nonfiction. Well, and Fifty Shades of Grey. That had a huge internet following that grew over several years. But that book hit a very specific niche. No, E. L. James didn’t think “I’m going to write a bestseller.” She wrote what she loved.
Oops, was that your ankle bone? Sorry, just a reflex.
Yes, I’m sure you could choose to love something that would be popular, but there’s no guarantee you’d pick the right thing. Books you see on shelves were started at least two years ago. It takes a long time to finish a book, get an agent, and get a publisher.
Sure, you can publish it yourself, but marketing and building platform is a full-time job.
Good work moving your hand, sir, you’re fast! Just keep writing, everyone, while I pry this fork out of the table.
We’re here because we love to write. Some hope to sell our books, some of us write for our own pleasure. I’m sure we’d all love to write a bestseller, but that’s not why we’re writing. I mean, fame and money are great goals, but writing a book is probably one of the hardest ways to get there. By the time you count up all the hours, it’s not even that much money.
Yes, a “How to Write a Bestseller” workshop would be very popular. I’m sure I could charge lots of money for it. But I’d rather spend that time writing, and teaching something a little more realistic. Maybe “How to Write What You Love and Share It.”
I guess that wouldn’t be very exciting for someone who wants to write a bestseller. You want a workshop with a breakdown of a specific bestselling book’s dramatic structure. That would help you. Something exactly like that website I recommended 45 minutes ago.
OK everyone, I’ll just pick up my table and sweep up the broken glass, and let’s check in on how that hour went!
Allison K Williams enjoys writing, teaching, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is. She’s Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and will be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica in May 2019.
October 18, 2018 § 4 Comments
It is easy to hate Amazon, but they do sell a lot of books for us, don’t they?
Well maybe not. DeWitt Henry, founding editor of Ploughshares literary magazine, waited expectantly for his latest book to show up on the popular, monopolistic bookseller’s pages only to surf through two nights ago to encounter a rather peculiar surprise. He writes about it here:
For weeks I’ve been anticipating my launch on Amazon for SWEET MARJORAM: NOTES AND ESSAYS. The release date was 10-15, and I kept checking obsessively, but only found my earlier title, SWEET DREAMS. The night of 10-16, I typed in the product search, and there it was at last!
I called my wife away from CNN: “Hey, look at this!”
But when we clicked for the order page what came up was a large pic of the cover alongside ordering information for “Keaac Womens Chiffon Print Sleeveless Irregular Hem A Line Top Dress,” a maternity dress from China, available in “Small=China X-Large: Length:25.59″ (65cm), Bust:42.52″ (108cm); Medium=China 2X-Large: Length:25.98″ (66cm), Bust:44.09″ (112cm);” and other sizes that seemed nothing like the essay collection I have worked on for years.
Meanwhile the “real” book is available from www.MadHat-Press.com and I hope happy readers will spread the word and even leave reviews on Amazon.
October 10, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Chelsey Drysdale
A year ago, I finished an overhaul of my manuscript. Since then, I’ve existed in that anticipatory space between first completed memoir and accepting agent, when all literary momentum has stalled.
I write about love, sex, and relationships. As a 45-year-old who has forgotten how to date, I’ve already covered (almost) all the noteworthy, sordid details in the book. Waving sayonara to a trail of men that could fill a hockey roster, my romantic future is murky, so now what?
I have an essay on submission that started as a 4,000-word piece I whittled in workshop until my first mentor said it was ready for the “done pile.” When I removed it from my original manuscript, I renovated it into a 900-word essay about how I’ve always loved emotionally unavailable men, but no longer pursue them. I did research. I included outside sources. A haunted house figures prominently, and as it was early October last year when I sent it to publication number one; it was timely for Halloween.
Early rejections were promising. I was told, “This is a lovely read, but not quite the right fit for us.” One publication said, “We’re super full,” but “pitch this all over.” The “Halloween peg” was a plus. Halloween came and went, so did Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. Positive feedback turned to silence after an editor I once worked with at The Washington Post said, “Oh boy, can I relate to this one!” But, unfortunately, “relatable isn’t enough to make something stand out on the Internet anymore.” In addition to personal, it also had to be newsworthy.
Then, six years after I first began the essay, I sent it to a friend who provides keen feedback. She advised I ditch the quotations because they distracted from the flow of the piece. She was right. They were an attempt to please an imaginary online editor. My eagerness to press ‘send’ was revitalized.
But now Halloween is upon us again, and I’m on submission number 17, wondering if I should give up after 20. Because of the brush-offs, I doubt the essay’s merit and wonder if the other 11 essays I’ve published since 2014 were flukes. You had a good run, I tell myself. Maybe it’s over. The stillness in my self-created purgatory has conjured the tiny, mean voice in my head that once successfully urged me to quit writing for two years. It’s pestering me again, but this time, I can’t quit. I have a well-earned manuscript that’s not too shabby. So, I must thwart my brain’s wishes and push forward.
That’s why I continue to query agents and revise my book proposal. To date, I’ve queried 49 agents, including one in person and one referred. Five are pending. I considered that excessive until I saw a suggestion on Facebook to make a list of 40 agents, query 10 at a time, and do that three times before reevaluating the angle. Do 120 agents who accept smutty memoirs without happy endings even exist?
Submitting and querying are both excellent ways to avoid writing and still feel like I’m accomplishing something while I summon new topics. I could set up another Bumble profile and leave it up for more than three days at a time, but then I’d have to talk to dubious strangers and maybe even meet them in person. To gather fresh material for my writing, I have to be open to new love, right?
When the #metoo movement began, my first thought was thankfully, I don’t have any stories like that. Then an overlooked incident from the late ‘90s immediately revealed itself, and I turned to the blank page and filled it. I considered capitalizing on that “newsworthy” angle. But, staring at new content about an old incident, I wasn’t sure what the point was. It needed to steep. It’s still steeping. After an important realization later, I put the incomplete piece in the same Word document with an unpublished essay I began more than 10 years ago, another casualty of my revised manuscript. I puzzled out how they relate, and then something scary happened. I thought this needs to be fiction, and I can’t unthink it. But I don’t write fiction.
I’ve often undervalued myself—in relationships and writing. Fiction requires an imagination I’m not sure I possess. I wrote a short story during my teaching credential program 19 years ago and read it in class, sobbing. I haven’t tackled fiction since. So, instead of writing a short story, I’m reading about how to write a short story, pulling old craft texts off my shelf, including a stellar one written by someone who lost his job for sexual misconduct.
My literary career and love life hover in the balance, and I’m perpetuating this indeterminate state. If I don’t write, I can’t fail. If I don’t date, I won’t be rejected again. Both are defense mechanisms that stem from the same unfounded fears. I may be an anxious person, but I’m also adept at eventually running into the eye of the storm with my eyes closed. So, I signed up for a fiction writing workshop. I will leap into the great unknown, scared as usual, but willing nonetheless.
Maybe by next Halloween I’ll publish that pesky essay or receive an email from an agent who’s intrigued. By then, my nebulous short story, crying out to be told, may have taken shape.
Until then, I’ll deal with the silence. I’m a pro at limbo. I can wait.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
October 4, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Heather O’Shea
“Oh, no!” I thought. What have I done?
In recent weeks when kids were being shot at school, immigrant babies were being yanked away from their parents, and beloved icons were deciding they had had enough of life on this planet, I found myself quoting Leonard Bernstein. Specifically, a quote I found on the bulletin board in my church’s choir room: This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.
Yes, I thought the first time I saw it. Yes—let’s double down on art and music and prove we still believe that love wins in the end. I love making music, and I believe in its redemptive power. When I’m not writing, you’ll likely find me singing in a choir or playing my piano, mandolin, or violin. But as weeks passed and the world kept spinning through a never-ending meteor shower of violence, I started losing patience with Bernstein’s words. He wrote them right after JFK was assassinated; he was replying to a specific act of violence that had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I started working on a blog post in which I argued that making music wasn’t going to cut it this time. I wasn’t sure what I wanted my musician friends to do instead, but I didn’t want them to retreat to their studios and practice rooms and leave the rest of us out here alone, trying to pick up the pieces every time something new breaks. I worked on the essay for weeks, but I couldn’t make it work. Everything I wrote sounded too cynical. I finally left that post to languish in my drafts folder and moved on.
But something else Bernstein said started haunting me. I’ve recently made some huge changes. Not only did I leave my teaching job, my husband and I sold our house and are in the middle of a cross country move from New Mexico to Florida. I’ve cleared all the decks—work, the choir I sing in, violin lessons with my granddaughter. I’m moving away from everything and everyone I’ve been saying yes to for decades. My calendar is clear.
Instead of fitting writing in around the edges, in my new plan, all those edges will radiate out from a firm core of words. In just the first few months, I’ve completed the revisions on the novel I’ve been wrestling with for the past four years, guest-posted for another blogger, added new content on my own blog, and started sending out work that’s been gathering dust for years. In other words, I’m killing the new plan.
I’ve also adjusted my relationship to money and things, as it has become necessary to live a little more lightly in the world. I purged and packed and packed and purged until 3,400 square feet of house (who needs 3,400 square feet of house?) could fit into an 18-foot truck and whatever room my husband and the golden retriever don’t take up in the Subaru. I’m dreaming of spending my life sitting on the lanai, writing words that people actually read.
I’m training myself to say lanai instead of porch or patio or stoop since I am moving to Florida. I like lanai. It makes me think of Joan Didion. If I weren’t in the middle of a move, I could go to my bookshelf and look at my Joan Didion books and figure out why lanai makes me think of her. Unfortunately, my bookshelves were built-ins, so they are holding up someone else’s books and knick-knacks now. My books, if I can believe the man who drove away with them, are stashed in a warehouse in Austin. They should join me in Florida sometime in November, when my new house and its lanai are completed.
But I digress. Why did I start this essay with an “oh, no!”? During the weeks when I was busy clearing the decks and struggling to write a blog post arguing that playing music just won’t cut it this time, I stumbled on these other words, also supposedly spoken by Leonard Bernstein. “To achieve great things, two things are needed;” he says. “…a plan…”
Check. I’ve got a plan.
“…and not quite enough time.”
I flip through the newly blank pages of my planner, empty as a night without a dream. Oh, no, I think.
What have I done?
Heather O’Shea is a freelance writer and author of the blog LiveLoveLeave.com. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Daily Good, the Notre Dame Review, Blue Mesa Review, and Cold Mountain Review. Heather left a career in business for a career in education, and just left that career to fulfill her dream of writing full-time (on or off the lanai). Any day now, she will be looking for a publisher for BookEnds, her first novel.
October 1, 2018 § 6 Comments
By Cat Pleska
The time had finally arrived: my first book launch. I’d worked on my memoir for fifteen years before a university press published it. I justified the long time it took to finish by saying sometimes you have to live a little longer and grow to understand what your life story is and what it means.
A few months in advance of my book’s release, I’d scheduled its launch at an independent bookstore nearby. Then a month before, I had a dream. In the dream I walked into the bookstore’s reading space. The reading table for authors was at the back of the room and there to one side of it stood my parents and my dad’s parents, shoulder to shoulder. Beaming smiles. I felt their approval for the book, their pride in me. I woke, haunted by the fact that these four people, who appeared prominently in my memoir, were all gone. They would never see me in this life-affirming moment.
The image stayed with me and an idea began to form in the back of my mind. Because I had previously portrayed historical characters, one for my state’s humanity council’s History Alive! program and another for the national Mother’s Day Foundation, I was accustomed to costumes and performances to become someone else. Two weeks before the launch, I hatched a plan.
In my local Goodwill, I found an old work shirt and in Cabela’s an orange hunting hat. From Ebay, I ordered a cigarette rolling machine identical to the one my grandfather allowed me to roll his cigarettes for him when I was a child. I borrowed my husband’s steel toe work boots. I found my old reading glasses that looked like the ones my grandmother wore and dug out one of her ashtrays. For my mother, I could find no costume items, so I decided to express her with stance and attitude.
The day came and I rounded the door to the reading space, half expecting my family to be standing as I saw them in my dream. Approaching the table, I sat a chair on either side then placed my props. It was show time!
I drew in a shaky breath and prepared to let the audience know I had not come alone. In front of them, I donned the tan work shirt over my clothes and pulled on the boots. I rolled a cigarette in the rolling machine with tobacco torn from a borrowed cigarette (since I don’t smoke) and launched into a story my grandfather always told, copying his vernacular and physical stance. I drew laughs when I changed in front of them and switched chairs to portray my grandmother tapping her “ashes” into her hand— she usually ignored her ashtrays—as she told a story about me when I was a baby. Then I switched to a flannel shirt and hunting hat, cigarette dangling from my lip as Dad told his famous “Night on Cheat Mountain” wild tale. Again I switched chairs and took off any props to sit proper, legs crossed, and told a rollicking tale of my mother’s, her cigarette flashing in the air as she gestured.
Finally, it was just me, in front of friends and strangers reading from my memoir. Stories about growing up with these giants, these people who were wonderful and wonderfully flawed, who loved me, despite my own flaws. I remembered their stories and my own like the lines of a play.
In my imagination, with each reading, they would fill the back row of the audience. Over time, I imagined them less. Then they were gone. I became the lone character.
To my utter shock, I plunged into mourning their deaths again. No one had told me this might happen when you recreate and write about long-gone loved ones.
For the next few months, as I exulted in my first published book, I also felt the heavy burden of grief. This time, all four of them at once. The truth is that to write memoir, we must visit the good, the bad, the past, the present, and resurrect ghosts to convey to our readers the lived life.
In my memoir, I wrote their story, as they had asked me to over the years, and I boldly added my own. They showed up to let me know they were proud of me and to take a final bow.
Cat Pleska is the author of Riding on Comets: a Memoir, (West Virginia University Press, 2015). Even though she lives in and writes from the heart of Appalachia, she is currently working on a collection of travel/personal essays titled The I’s Have It: Traveling in Ireland and Iceland. She teaches full time in the online Master of Liberal Studies Program, for Arizona State University.
September 28, 2018 § 3 Comments
By Ashley P. Taylor
Holding a box of stationery shut in my desk drawer is a giant rubber band. The box was never in any danger of falling open, so I don’t know why I rubber banded it, unless the purpose was simply to do something with the rather large bag of giant rubber bands that I ordered from Amazon two years ago.
I was querying an agent who asked for hard-copy submissions, and I’d heard that one of two ways to collate one’s score of sample pages was to use a rubber band (the other way being binder clips).
Of all the rookie writing questions one could ask a novelist, “What size rubber bands did you use?” has got to be one of the worst. To ask it is to be little better than the small children who, after John Updike read a kid’s book aloud, persistently questioned the author about the mechanics of using a typewriter: “Do you ever make mistakes, typing?” Updike repeated the question. “Do I ever make mistakes . . . typing?”
So instead of asking around, I went on Amazon and ordered a one-pound box of 40 Alliance-brand rubber bands, seven inches around and five-eighths of an inch wide. It’s easy, now, to look and see what I bought, but the choice of rubber band was not easy. So many things could go wrong. With a rubber band too big, the pages are loose; one too small and one’s precious leaves get crumpled or bent; one too thin and the band snaps and flies into the agent’s eyes, blinding her to your manuscript, nay, to all manuscripts, to everything!
The rubber bands I chose were way too thick. Luckily, there was an alternative: I headed to Staples. There I did indeed find a rainbow assortment of long skinny rubber bands that looked capable of restraining a manuscript, but I wasn’t tempted. Binder clip it was, and with a little help from the guy at the mailing counter, I even put the metal flaps down so that my manuscript could fit into a Priority Mail envelope.
All this to say that I’m seeking alternative uses—beyond stationery security overkill—for heavy-duty rubber bands. Slingshot component? Aid for drawing—or dyeing—smooth lines around dinosaur eggs? Giant-asparagus fastener? I throw the bag of them at the floor, and it bounces a little, so the rubber bands could make a giant rubber-band ball, although its core would have to be quite large. If I crumpled up all the pages of my manuscript . . .
I wonder what the rubber-band manufacturer imagines they will be used for. The Alliance Rubber press kit, “Holding Your World Together,” lists novel applications not necessarily for giant rubber bands but for rubber bands in general: jar opener, cutting-board securer, box-flap holder-downer, wallet altogether replacer, and, my favorite, waist extender. “Whether you’ve got one on the way or just want to breathe easy while you sit,” Alliance instructs, “simply pull a rubber band through the buttonhole on your pants. Then, put that loop around the button. It’s that simple!” A picture of unzipped black jeans, their waist flexibly expanded by a thin brown loop, accompanies this suggestion.
When I post to Facebook this bit about rubber-band-cum-waist-extender, hoping to make people laugh, a friend comments that she did the same thing with a hair elastic when she was expecting. Perhaps I am the ignorant one. Maybe if ever become pregnant, I’ll understand. But a hair elastic is one thing; a small thing, specifically. I really hope I won’t ever need to expand my waistband with a seven-inch rubber band capable of stretching to seven times its original circumference.
Alliance also says that the rubber bands they produce in a year could encircle the globe 23 times. I wonder how close my rubber bands would come to doing that. Each can theoretically stretch to 49 inches. I’m not sure what Alliance envisions, but I imagine hooking the bands together to form something like chain-link rubber. In that case, each rubber band covers 25 inches, max. Earth is 1,577,727,360 inches around, according to Google. At 40 bands per box, each box covers 1,000 inches, and I’d need a million and a half boxes, which is, oh, about a million and a half times beyond the scope of my project.
Maybe I’ll put the rubber bands in a drawer and return to the novel.
But would the world bounce? I sort of want to know.
Ashley P. Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer of journalism, essays, and fiction. Her essays have appeared in LUMINA Online Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy Magazine, and Catapult and have been listed as notable in Best American Essays 2016, 2017, and 2018. Her short fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Joyland.