Do You Need an MFA? The Absolutely, Positively Definitive Answer

May 10, 2022 § 15 Comments

Not condescending at all!

I’m in a wonderful writing group, tailored to our exact needs: 20 pages, once a month, no written feedback. We are three people with writing or writing-adjacent jobs and one aerospace systems analyst. Between us are a PhD, a couple of MFAs, some BAs and Associates degrees. If you listened to our last discussion, ranging from The Yellow Wallpaper to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, you’d be hard-pressed to define anyone’s credentials from their writing or their critique. We’re all working on projects that stretch our abilities. We’re all great at some craft elements and struggling with others.

I’m one of the MFA holders. Has it forwarded my writing career? Yes. And No. (You knew that was coming.)

My MFA is in Playwriting. With all due respect to my teachers, a Playwriting degree from an English department is ridiculous. Writing for actors and directors to interpret, creating setting from a few stage directions while maintaining awareness of the budget needed to stage your play, is its own process. More importantly, your Theatre department peers will go on to form small theatre companies that produce new plays. Long-term, an English department has nothing to offer playwrights.

Fortunately, I’d already published plays and had scripts produced. Many of them. I was also teaching in the Theatre department, where I could stage my thesis script. My MFA did two things for me: my assistantship was as a journal editor, and I discovered I liked writing nonfiction. Editing under the eagle eyes of a brilliant (Theatre department) mentor was a valuable step towards my now-career as an editor and teacher. Writing nonfiction led me to the Kenyon Writers Workshop, Dinty W. Moore and Brevity.

What’s made me a better writer is critique. My first sustained critique experience, giving and receiving, was a 10-month online contest with weekly prompts. Responding to others’ work with genuinely helpful feedback, while still being likeable enough to get votes for my work, was powerful. Receiving critique taught me to recognize the Damn, I thought I could get away with that feeling that means that criticism is correct; using it will make my work better. Recognizing when critique was wrong or unsupportive thickened my skin and gave me confidence. Writing weekly (and sometimes more often) on a strict deadline for 10 months gave me 50+ chances to try out craft techniques, and a folder full of work ready to revise and submit. And I got all that for free.

A good MFA program also gives critique, deadlines, and sustained commitment. Ideally, writers graduate with a significant project ready for publication, a host of smaller pieces, the ability to give and receive critique, and the ability to write to deadline, plus colleagues and mentors who will blurb, publish and support our future work. Many of us also incur tens of thousands of dollars in debt, discover the program doesn’t support our genre, and/or that our thesis is not actually publishable without substantially more work.

Is it worth it?

Yes—if you are writing literary fiction, literary memoir, or can find a program dedicated to your genre that also focuses on publication.

No—if you write genre fiction or commercial memoir and want to make money.

Yes—if you are fully funded by the department. That’s a vote of confidence in your work; your whole experience will be better.

No—if you want to become university faculty. That career boat has sailed. Publish books instead, and the English department will come to you.

Yes—if you’re a returning student in a low-residency or nontraditional program who needs time, support and focus for a specific project you are burning to write.

No—if your feeling is “maybe I’ll write a book someday.”

Yes—if you have substantial personal funds to pay for your experience.

No—if you’re putting it on a credit card.

If you have a burning passion for your book, and the ability to pay for the program or get funding, go for it. But an MFA is not a “figure things out” place—it’s a “use this time as fully as you can for your plan” place.

Fortunately, there are plenty of less-expensive and lower-commitment places to learn to write and finish a book. Several writing centers offer year-long programs oriented to finishing a book, complete with deadlines, colleagues and critique. And of course, you can cobble together your own program from webinars, craft books and short-term workshops, ideally enlisting a couple of writer friends you’re sure you’ll still be speaking to in 3 years.

No matter what your best path is, what matters most is putting the lessons into action. Revising and resubmitting a piece that doesn’t work yet. Actively analyzing fellow students’ writing to see what’s working, what’s not, and why—and then applying those discoveries to your own work. Hiring a teacher for yourself/your group to improve your craft. An MFA won’t do you any good without doing the homework, and neither will self-study. But if you’re focused, dedicated and committed to your own work, it doesn’t matter who you pay—or if your writing credentials cost nothing at all.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Building your own MFA? Want to learn more about publishing and improve your writing craft? Learn to write a book pitch and see if yours works? Allison & Dinty are co-teaching a five-day virtual intensive next week, and two spots are still available. More info/register here.

The Myth of the Extrovert

April 26, 2022 § 16 Comments

But what do you do if you’re an introvert?

I’ve been asked this question a lot, when I talk about book marketing and author platform.

You’re so positive and energetic about marketing your work to agents and publishers. But what about us introverts?

Well, what about you?

What should we do differently?

Not a damn thing.

There’s a persistent idea that introverts aren’t good at social media or outreach or dealing with rejection or talking about their book in public. But extroverts, well…it must all come naturally to them!

It does not.

I do not roll out of bed every morning thinking, Now I will fulfill my life’s passion of writing press releases! Nor do I joyfully open Facebook and cry, “I can’t wait to ask people to buy my book! Again!”

In high school, I was a swimmer. I wasn’t particularly fast, but nobody else swam the 1000-meter, so I usually won. I didn’t love swimming enough to work harder, to come in at 6AM for another hour of practice, to fine-tune my best stroke. But even if I had, even if I’d aimed for an Olympic medal, it wouldn’t be because I loved swimming laps. It would be because I love victory. Swimming laps at 6AM was the price of eventual victory, and for then-me, that price was too high.

As a writer, I don’t love doing social media or writing press releases. But I’ve learned enough about doing those things that they’re reasonably satisfying to do well, and there’s parts I genuinely enjoy. Every time I do one of those things, I am paying a little price for the victory of getting my book into the world. If making that happen means showing up on social media like it’s my part-time job, and experiencing constant low-level rejection like it’s my other part-time job, then that’s what I’m going to do. Those prices are worth paying.

As an introvert—and yes, I am one!—the core parts of my platform are what I do love: teaching, speaking, blogging, and consulting one-on-one with writers either live or online.

Do I like people?

Not especially.

But I love teaching people. I love seeing writers’ faces light up as they understand their own stories better. I love hearing when an author gets published and I’ve been a small part of their journey. Even when my platform-building activities are tiring, or one more thing on my list that day, those activities still feel good to do. And I’ve learned that for every weekend conference or week-long retreat where I care 100% about everyone I speak to, I also need a decompression week in an AirBnB by myself.

No-one effectively promotes a book or builds a platform on “being an extrovert.” Feeling energized in a group isn’t a solid marketing strategy. Instead, define your mission. How does your book fulfill that mission? Who are the people who need your work? What activities can you engage in to get your book to those people?

Maybe that’s social media. Maybe it’s public speaking. Maybe it’s writing literary essays or pitching mass-media essays. Maybe it’s speaking to support groups, guesting on podcasts or sending email newsletters. But you’re not doing these activities because you’re an extrovert and they just come naturally. They all require time and practice to be effective, and you’re doing them because they reach your readers. If you want to publish and sell books, it’s work you need to do.

But I’m shy.

Get out there slowly and do the work a little at a time. It will get easier.

But I hate social media.

Then pick other ways to do the work.

I have kids/dogs/caretaking obligations/no money/no MFA/no good role models.

Time, money, class and connection privileges definitely impact how much you can do and how far it reaches. But you’re still going to have to do the work. Please ask for help.

I’m worried about my privacy.

Doing the work means deciding what you choose to share. Nobody’s out there with a checklist waiting for you to flash your boobs (or bare your soul) on Instagram.

I just want to be a writer. I don’t want to do the work.

Are you fabulously wealthy?

No.

Have you recently won a major literary prize?

Yes.

You’re off the hook! Your publisher is doing the work.

I just made that up to see what you’d say.

Then guess what? Do the work.

Whether it’s marketing our books, attending a party or sweeping the floor, there is nothing we “have to” do. But there are plenty of things where we prefer the advantages of doing them to the consequences of not doing them. Marketing your book is a choice. You don’t have to do the work—unless you prefer to reach the people for whom you wrote your book. You won’t be able to do it all. But choose what best supports your mission, treat it like a part-time job, and practice until you’re better and faster at doing it. And as your work puts your words in the hands of people who need them…some of it you might even come to love.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

What is this mission of which you speak? How can I find the marketing work I’ll enjoy? How does this apply to a memoirist/novelist/poet? What changes if my work is more literary or more commercial? Get the answers at the upcoming webinar, Writer Mind, Marketing Mind. May 11th, $25. Replay & transcript will be available. Click to register/see lesson plan.

The Absence of Yes: Why Agents Don’t Answer Your Email

April 21, 2022 § 17 Comments

By Di Brown

I’m querying a memoir.

Is there any single sentence in a writer’s life that is as debilitating, exhilarating, and soul-crushing?

Got a gut-wrenching story that took a decade to live, two to recover from, and five years to write? Summarize it in two to three paragraphs. Synopsis. Outline. Show the arc. Outline your platform. Demonstrate the market. Do it really well and an agent might glance at the first ten pages. Or not.

In most cases, I’ll never know. Because agents don’t write back. I’ve sent out ten queries this month, and I’ll be lucky if I get a response to even one of them. Is there a silence more deafening than a four, six, eight, twelve week wait that ends in…nothing?

“If I handled my mail the way agents do,” I whined to another writer, “I’d get fired in a heartbeat. Months-long waits? No status updates? Don’t bother to respond at all? Not a chance.”

“But…you do the same thing.”

“Are you KIDDING me? I most certainly do not!”  I work in IT. I have the stats to prove how quickly and consistently I reply.

“You answer every person, every message?”

“I’m sure I occasionally miss a few but overall, yes.”

“Every network management company, training provider, security vendor…”

“Well, not all the cold-call sales spam, unless it’s something we have a need for, but all the people…

And that’s when it hit me: In that agent’s inbox, I’m the spam.

I see my queries as a business communication: Dear Agent, let’s chat about this project and see whether we can team up to get it off the ground. I can’t conceive how they could simply ignore it, disregard the courtesy of even the most perfunctory reply.

But to the agent, I’m not “people.” I’m one of a hundred cold-call messages they received yesterday. A hundred messages they need to dispose of to make room for the hundred that will arrive today. The people in their mailbox are clients, publishers, editors, media outlets, reviewers, lawyers, and book club reps. I’m the sales spam. And that agent is managing their day the same way that I manage mine.

But I’m a writer, not a salesperson.

A lifetime ago, I worked for a telemarketing company—in the office, not on the phones. I was not cut out for sales. I worked with some amazing sales reps, and even the best loathed cold-calling. The success rate was awful, no matter how talented you were. Cold calls didn’t convert to sales often enough for the commissions to pay the rent.

And here I am, thirty years later, cold-calling agents in batches of ten. One of a hundred voices invading their inbox and demanding “check out my product.”

If I was not cut out for sales, am I not cut out for this? Would I be better off just self-publishing, and avoiding the endless black hole of querying? Tempting, but the reality is that if I self-publish, my success would still depend on my ability to market and sell my book.

Maybe I should just give it up altogether.

Or maybe I should climb out of the center of that black hole and get a different perspective. Embrace the silence.

I am the spam. I send cold-call emails to agents, calling out to them to look at MY product.

Choose me!  Choose me!

The majority of my queries get deleted. The handful of agents who want to know “what happened next” often decide it’s not topical enough, it’s too similar to something they already represent, my platform is insufficient. With or without regret, they click the delete button just as fast as I do for the vendors who email me each day.

And it doesn’t mean anything. Not when I do it, not when they do it.

Some days I am still tempted to mass-mail every agent on Publishers Marketplace a link to my how-to videos, and suggest they set up some automated rules for their email accounts so I will get a darn kiss-off note when they categorize my query as “decline”. (I’d get a lot of agent attention, but probably not the kind I’m looking for.)

But I’m staying in the game.

I have something to say. I believe it matters enough, can matter enough to enough readers that it’s worth the effort to find an agent and a publisher to partner with. I think about how many times those telemarketers—the really talented ones—would get hung up on before finally making a sale. They needed continuous sales to pay the rent. I only need one to turn a dream into reality.

When I send my next ten queries, I won’t expect any of those agents to answer me, because I know I am the spam. I will shout into the void, “who wants a memoir about a girl who runs away from home to become James Bond!” and I will be greeted, over and over, with silence. A silence that isn’t rude, dismissive, insulting, unprofessional, or a cosmic chorus of “no”. Just the absence of “yes”.

I don’t need those ten people to take time out of their day to tell me that I’m the spam. I only need to hear from the one who wants to know what happened next.

Di Brown can’t decide what to do when she grows up, so she’s put off growing up until she has a plan. In the interim, she’s been a Cold War spy, learned to knit (badly), program computers (well), and had stories and essays published in anthologies on three continents. Find her on the web at www.dianabrown.net, or stop by her YouTube channel for technology tips (including how to “Automate Your Inbox”).

Yes, You Can Successfully Publish Your Book

April 19, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

Writing a book is hard enough, but for many what follows is a path to publication fraught with anxiety and concern, and for too many writers, a depressing sense of being powerless.

All that hard work, and then what? Agony and frustration?

It shouldn’t be that way, and it doesn’t have to be. Yes, the market is highly competitive, and various publishing industry practices contribute to those feelings of isolation and hopelessness, yet success is more within our grasp than some of us realize. 

What is needed, is clear-headedness.

Having mentored writers all these many years, I am regularly asked variations on:

  • How do I get an agent?
  • Do I really need to get an agent?
  • Why are agents so difficult to reach?
  • Should I go with a small press?
  • What about self-publishing?

All of these are good questions, and it is important to note that there are no one-size-fits-all answers to any of them.

What writers need to realize, I think, is that what happens with your book once it is written and edited is up to you, in your control. You have worked hard on your project, put in the hours, offered up the blood, sweat, and honesty, made family or work sacrifices, toiled to learn craft and polish every page, and when done, the question you SHOULD be asking yourself is:

What will make me feel that all this hard work was worth it?

The important word in that sentence is “me,” meaning, of course, you, the author. It is not up to the agents, not up to the publishing establishment, not up to some negative voice in your head, it is up to you.

Here’s how:

If you are a writer who will not feel fulfilled without the validation of a major New York City publishing house, if you will not feel proud of yourself for the time and effort and sacrifice, then yes, you will need to suffer the slings and arrows of finding an agent, the initial rejection, reaching out to more agents, more rejection, finding an agent, and eventually the exciting but sometimes excruciating process of waiting to see if your agent can make a big sale. If that is what you need to feel validated, then that is what you need. But the decision is up to you.

If, however, publishing with a smaller publishing house, maybe a regional publisher, maybe a University Press, will make you feel as if all the work you put into your book was worth it, than that going this route is certainly success by my definition and should be by yours. Small presses have numerous advantages over their bigger rivals, especially the attention they give to individual books.

And there is no shame in self-publishing. If holding a book in your hand, written by you, carefully edited, professionally produced, showing it to your friends, selling at events, makes you proud, makes you feel as if all the hard work put in was time well spent, then that certainly is success as well.

Don’t let others dictate to you what “success” means in book publishing.  Decide for yourself what makes it worth your while–and then celebrate your efforts.

Allison K Williams, a fantastic writing coach and author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro From Blank Page to Book, and I will be offering a virtual Publishing and Craft Intensive next month to discuss these ideas and much more. We hope that you can join us to refine your craft, connect with fellow writers, generate new work, and explore the various paths to publishing. Details and a daily schedule breakdown can be found here:  

Rebirth Your Writing Publishing and Craft Intensive, May 15-19th, 2022.

We would love to see you there to discuss our writing, our writerly community, and a writer’s many publishing options.

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More resources on the various paths to publishing:

Jane Friedman’s Key Book Publishing Paths

The Truth Is Out There: Your (Nearly) Free Publishing Education

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Dinty W. Moore is author of the memoirs Between Panic & Desire and To Hell With It, and the writing guides Crafting the Personal Essay and The Mindful Writer, among other books. He has published essays and stories in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere.  He edits Brevity magazine.

In The Blink of an Eye

April 12, 2022 § 13 Comments

Last week, literary agent Lauren Spieller tweeted:

Ms. Spieller also said she’d answered 206 already. A writer acquaintance huffily responded this must be why he wasn’t connecting with an agent: Most queries probably aren’t even read.

I can empathize with the throes of discouragement when a creation you’ve spent years on isn’t finding a match…but that’s not accurate.

First, some context. Ms. Spieller had reopened to queries after closing for four months. She updated her Manuscript Wish List and announced that on Twitter, creating immediate interest. Some of the volume was pent-up demand—authors actively waiting for her to open, queries ready for “send.” More typically, agents get anywhere from 20-200 queries a day.

Can they truly read them all?

Think about something you are very, very good at. A subject you’re an expert in; a skill you’ve truly mastered; a product or craft you make or repair.

For me, it’s casting street theatre performers. Super niche, right? Here’s how that works:

Performers fill out an online form with basic details and their promo video link. I only get 400-500 submissions a year (it’s a small festival). Most videos are 90 seconds-5 minutes long. Sometimes they send their whole 45-minute show.

How long does it take me to assess a fire-eater or a trapeze artist or a juggler and know whether I want to hire them?

15 seconds.

After years of experience I can tell, in the first 15 seconds:

  • Are they good enough to be in my Pick From Among These Performers pile?
  • Are they appropriate for a family-friendly, daylight, outdoor show?
  • Do they excite me and make me want to watch more?
Kilted Colin playing bagpipes on fire

I do not need longer. In fact, I can tell in under five seconds that the solo aerialist in theatrical lighting can’t rig her trapeze at our street festival. That the acrobats in flesh-colored bodysuits with toothy mouths painted on their groins (NOT MAKING THAT UP) aren’t right for our family festival. That the juggler on the ground with three clubs is less entertaining than the juggler on the unicycle playing bagpipes on fire (not making that up, either). I can immediately see which performers are beginners with boring costumes and hack public-domain jokes, and who’s invested time and money in looking like—and being—seasoned professionals.

Think again about that thing you’re great at: how long does it take you to know that tennis serve is off or that calligraphy looks terrible or that garden is a hot mess?

I bet it’s under 15 seconds.

You might take longer to figure out why, and longer still to assess what needs fixing and how. But is it any good, and is it right for you? You know that right away.

Reading queries—and submissions—is EXACTLY like that.

Every editor, publisher and agent I have ever spoken to says this ratio is true (or nearly so) for every submissions inbox:

  • 50% are wrong (regardless of quality). A novel sent to a poetry publisher. Picture book queries to adult crime fiction agents.
  • 25% are terrible. Poorly spelled, first-draft writing, vast misconceptions about publishing or openly rude and dismissive (yes, insulting the agent/agenting process in the first line really happens.)
  • 20% are good, but not good enough, timed poorly for the market, the story doesn’t grab the agent, or they already have a book like that on their roster.
  • 5% call for reading closely and responding carefully.

Agents can dismiss the first three categories in 15-60 seconds each. From the last category, agents assess:

  • Is the writing good enough?
  • Does the story captivate me and make me want to read more?
  • Is this concept marketable right now?

An agent needs a “yes” to all three to ask for more pages, which they read with care and consideration and yes, taking more time. Authors can work on their craft and get a sense of the publishing market through self-education (getting an agent may not even be your best path!). But we cannot control whether our story excites an agent based on their personal taste and depth of knowledge—and understanding how quickly an agent can assess our work and move on is a hard pill to swallow.

Most agents truly do read every query. Most agents open every submission with hope, thinking, Maybe this one will be glorious literature that entertains millions and makes us both rich! Their No’s are 95% fast, gut-level decisions based on years of expertise and market knowledge. A rejection may or may not be based on the quality of your book. But if an agent is good enough that you hope to entrust them with your precious creation, they’re good enough to know what they want.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Is an agent your best path? How can you build platform, promote and sell your book without feeling like a huckster? Join me for Writer Mind, Marketing Mind May 11th at 1PM Eastern (recording available). This webinar will help you discover the best way to connect to your audience—and how to enjoy making money with your book.

Using a Newsletter as a Prewriting Exercise and Research Tool

March 16, 2022 § 6 Comments

A sepia toned photograph of a dark haired woman holds an infant while a toddler sits beside them. All are wearing white frilly dresses.)
My great grandmother Bertha Hander Polan, my uncle Eddie, and my grandfather. Taken in Baltimore in 1907

By Sarah Einstein

I came out of the worst of the pandemic feeling creatively dull and uninspired, in spite of having a book under contract with WVU Press that I was very excited about. I was really enjoying the research process, but I just wasn’t able to get any words on the page. Starting a Substack newsletter, Writing Family Histories, about my research really turned that around, and I think it might be useful to other writers of nonfiction as well.

My current project asks the question of whether or not I am, or even could be, an Appalachian Jew. It relies on family history, and I started the newsletter as a way to share my research with my family in a centralized way. It’s been a great boon because multiple relatives send me email after almost every post, filling in missing pieces of our history and—especially—letting me know when I’ve gotten something wrong. I’d tried a few other ways to do this before, including a Facebook group, but the newsletter has been the most effective way for us all to engage, perhaps because when someone answers the email I send out, it only goes to me, so nobody’s starting any family fights.

I’m also excited by the way it allows me to get nearly instant feedback on my research from both family and fellow writers doing the same sort of work. My partner and I are about to embark on a three month research trip—where, among other things, I’ll be visiting the part of Lithuania my great-great-grandparents lived before emigrating to escape Russian persecution—and I’m relieved that I can share what I find and get responses quickly enough to alter my research trajectory when someone with more complete knowledge is able to recognize a mistake or opportunity.

An unexpected boon of the newsletter has been the way it’s become really useful prewriting for the final project. In order to share my family stories, I have to write them out, but with none of the pressure of working on the manuscript. It’s absolutely lifted the pandemic pall and I wake up excited to write again. The immediacy of it, but also the fact that it feels very low stakes, has been really helpful in getting me over the post-lockdown funk. As soon as I learn some new thing—the story of my Uncle Henry’s murder, or the fact that my grandfather didn’t want my mother to give me an obviously Jewish name, I’m excited to share that with my family and the growing group of other writers who have joined the community. It has absolutely gotten me back in the chair.

Sarah Einstein

There are three things I wish I’d known starting out that I’d like to share with you:

  • More people will be interested in what you’re writing than you expect, and you should plan for that. Originally, I expected to be writing something only my own family members would be interested in, but in just a month we’ve built a community of writers and Jewish folk interested in genealogy of just over 200 people. If I had understood that there would be an audience for this kind of work, I’d have planned the elements of the newsletter that are about engagement a little better. I’m now set up with conversations and writing prompts for subscribers, but initially I was just writing about my family for my family. So, plan for people to show up and have something to offer them.
  • The paywall is an absolute necessity if you’re writing about anything that can rile up the internet trolls. I had to trash the first iteration of my newsletter because I didn’t have one, and almost instantly got a couple of online bigots posting antisemitic messages. You have choices you can make about what content goes to people with free memberships; I’ve set mine so that everybody can read everything, but only paid subscribers can make comments or join discussion threads. Even if you’re writing about something you think is troll-proof, remember that the internet can get het up about almost anything.
  • If you’re at all like me, you’ll start out so excited to be doing a new project you’ll want to post every—or even several times a—day. Unless you think you can keep this up, don’t. You don’t want to set an expectation you aren’t going to meet. I post 2-3 times a week, and vary the posts so that sometimes I’m talking about my findings, sometimes I’m talking about my methodology, and sometimes I’m just talking. I’ve even revived an old comic strip I used to co-write for a Jewish punk zine back in the 90s, Ma and Pa Shtetl, just for the newsletter. Keeping things varied ensures that different parts of your audience are finding something that is engaging to them.

I hope you find this useful for your own writing practice. I like to think of my newsletter as a set of public process notes—here is what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and what I’ve discovered—toward the final manuscript. But it’s also becoming a place where other people are sharing their stories with me, and that’s helping me to find and create more context for my own. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll join us, and if you start your own newsletter, please let me know!

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Sarah Einstein teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2015) and Remnants of Passion (SheBooks, 2014). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK, and other journals. Her work has been reprinted in the Best of the Net and awarded a Pushcart Prize and the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction.

The Third Way: Publishing Without an Agent

March 3, 2022 § 32 Comments

By Suzanne Roberts

Anyone who grew up around the time I did suffered through a number of school-sanctioned terrors; one such terror was dodgeball. I was one of the weaklings who could not dodge the ball fast enough. The school bullies always aimed for my face to see if they could smash my glasses. Sometimes they did. I have heard this game is now banned at schools around the country.

But even worse was the way teams were picked. Two captains took turns picking their team, one by one, while the rest of us waited to hear our names.

My name always came dead last.

I bring this up because our childhood shame resurfaces when we feel unwanted or rejected as adults, and I’ve watched this play out in a number of writers’ groups on Facebook. There’s a theme among those who are sending agent queries. In a word, these writers are bereft. Querying agents makes them hate writing. Or they’re about to give up and self-publish.

I’m here to say that you don’t have to choose between querying agents and self-publishing—there’s a third way. My writing career has depended on publishing with an independent press. I’ve published seven books with independent presses, and though I’ll never end up on bestseller lists, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive.

Disclaimer: I could never self-publish because I have a severe case of imposter syndrome; I very much need someone else to be the gatekeeper. After publishing four poetry books with tiny literary presses, I queried a memoir, Almost Somewhere to over 100 agents. Ten or twelve requested the full manuscript; I spoke to several on the phone. One said she very much liked my book but couldn’t sell it because I was “untested in the market.” She said, “You know poetry doesn’t count, right?”

Talk about a dodgeball to the face.

For the most part, the agents I spoke to were kind. I could tell they liked my book but knew the market better than I did, and mine wasn’t a book they could sell to a commercial press. Many authors will hear this, and it’s easy to feel rejected, but thinking about publishing as a business—which it very much is—helps. Maybe you have written a very good book, a brilliant book even, a book that readers need. That’s a very different thing than an agent knowing a book will sell enough copies to make it a worthwhile investment for a commercial press.

I sent Almost Somewhere to the University of Nebraska Press, and they agreed to publish it. My advance was zero (which made me laugh when anyone called it a “book deal”). Yet my book sold through the first printing before release, date and  13,481 copies in the 10 years since—not counting audiobooks or translations. For a commercial press, those numbers are tiny. For a university press, they’re excellent.

 After Almost Somewhere was published, an agent approached me. I was thrilled. And of course, I already had another book (or two) I was working on. Someone was picking me for her team! But the gap between her and my vision for a second book was too large. She kept calling my memoir a novel (her list was mostly women’s upmarket fiction, which wasn’t what I was writing). We parted ways, and I sent my next two books, Bad Tourist and Animal Bodies, to Nebraska. Every time, it’s been a good fit.

I’m nearly finished with another memoir, one that may or may not have “market potential.” How do I know? That’s not my job, so I’m not thinking about it just yet. If I query agents again, I’m not going to let it make me hate writing. The joy has always been in the process of writing and revising sentences the best way I know how. Sure, it would be nice to have someone help manage my career, another person who is invested in my work (since my mother and my dog are both dead). But I’m not going to stand around on the blacktop waiting for my name to be called.

I won’t let my childhood shame seep into writing life, even though at times, rejection feels like the slap of that hard ball on skin. I’ve been doing this long enough to know the writer’s life is full of rejection. I tell my students that even when their books come out, there’s always something more to lose: not getting reviews, not making “most-anticipated” lists, not winning awards, not selling many books. So the best thing they can do—that we can all do—is to focus on the one thing we control: the writing itself.

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Suzanne Roberts is the author Animal BodiesOn DeathDesireand Other DifficultiesBad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel and Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing.

I’d Be Grateful for Your Blurb: Making the Ask (a little) Less Awkward

February 3, 2022 § 15 Comments

By Mallory McDuff

Oprah. Terry. Cheryl. Janisse. Brené. Liz.

It took ten seconds to write their first names on a blank index card, as if I were brainstorming party invites or recalling past lovers. I was a member of their virtual paparazzi, following these famous authors on social media, not to suck up, but because I thought of myself as a close friend of their work.

When my editor later reminded me of the deadline for endorsements for my book, Our Last Best Act, about revising my final wishes with climate and community in mind—I started with my pie-in-the-sky list. Typing out the names, I used the heading “long shots.”

“I realize this list is aspirational,” I wrote, apologetically. “So I’ve included writers within my reach in bold.”

The word “blurb” was first used by the late humorist Gelett Burgess, whose 1907 book cover featured a photo of a woman he named “Miss Belinda Blurb,” shouting affirmations. These days the requisite “ask” can feel like a request to sit at the adult table.

My list included climate experts, writers specializing in grief, practitioners of green burial, and those long-shot authors and influencers. Blending memoir with on-the-ground research, my book stemmed from the tragic mirror-image deaths of my parents—and my father’s lifelong intention to have a funeral that relied on family and friends without harm to the Earth.

I’d spent a year researching end-of-life options like conservation cemeteries, aquamation, death doulas, green burial, home funerals, and even human composting. My 15 and 22-year old daughters gave input about each choice, since they would have to implement my plan.  

So the story was personal. But as a professor of environmental education and a single mom in the mountains of North Carolina, I didn’t have time during the pandemic to get existential or insecure about asking for blurbs. The process became relational, small points of connection for the long haul. Here’s what I learned that made the task feel a little less awkward:

Rejection now might lead to connection later.

While I didn’t hear back from Oprah or Cheryl Strayed, I received lovely rejection notes from several well-known authors or their PR people. Making a human connection felt like a win, even if it didn’t result in a blurb. One writer hadn’t responded to my e-mails, yet she discovered my request in her inbox months later and asked me to be a guest on her podcast. A climate scientist who declined to blurb offered to share my book on social media. Given her platform, I considered her offer a win.

Social media can be a viable way to engage and even follow up.

I’m a social media addict who doesn’t own a smartphone—for a reason. But communication with authors on social media was a vital way to connect, through comments about their posts but also direct messages. Long before writing this book, I’d been an authentic presence on their feeds. Literary citizenship felt like a positive use of time online.

Endorsers may give critical feedback before the book goes to print. 

One of my endorsers who was an expert in green burial also sent three pages of single-spaced feedback, which were vital for my final edits. While I would have loved her suggestions earlier in the editing process, her input at that stage still proved invaluable.

Our shared humanity connects us—even in the awkward practice of asking for blurbs.

One of my dream endorsers wrote me at 10:30 pm as I graded papers on my laptop in bed. That night, we exchanged messages about the challenges faced by our teens in pandemic times, the struggles that held our hearts much more than a blurb or a book launch. I’ll never forget the last line of her e-mail that night: Drink some tea. Go for a walk. Take care of yourself.

Another A-game writer couldn’t commit to a blurb until she read the entire book. The hard copy arrived at her home the weekend before her family planned to gather with her elderly father—to talk about his final wishes. None of my strategic lists or Instagram fangirl comments could have anticipated the depth of that shared experience. Some trust in the serendipity of the universe reminded me of the mystery beyond my control.

Despite these lessons, asking for blurbs may remain one of the “most dreaded parts of writing books,” as an Episcopal priest wrote after asking me to blurb her forthcoming book. Decades ago, my parents had been on her “discernment committee,” a group who provide guidance to someone considering the priesthood.

“I was thinking about how much I adored your parents and how meaningful they were to my beginning life as a priest,” she wrote me. “That’s some wonderfully godly stuff—that in my life as a writer, I meet you.”

Writing about life, death, and Earth—in a climate crisis in a pandemic—made me see the people whose endorsements I sought as fellow travelers discerning the next best path. Brené Brown says it best with her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from ‘What Will People Think?’ to ‘I Am Enough.’ We’re all trying to create meaning with our stories. Asking and giving help along the way is one small gift we can share.

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Mallory McDuff is the author of four books including her most recent: Our Last Best Act: Planning for the End of Our Lives to Protect the People and Places We Love (Dec. 2021, Broadleaf Books). She teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, WIRED, and more. @malmcduff

Feedback, Ouch, Revise, and Resubmit

December 30, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Lisa R. Roy

The first time I remember receiving feedback on my writing was from my fifth-grade teacher. I do not remember her name, but our class was given the assignment to read Cheaper by the Dozen and write a book report. I do not believe that I read the book, nor did I write an original report.  I think I just copied from the encyclopedia in those days. 

I was surprised that this teacher, with her English accent, was asking me to do better. As an African American girl bused to a majority European-American school outside of my neighborhood, I was invisible most of the time. The teachers rarely spoke to me unless I got into trouble, which was rare. The first time was for not raising my hand and blurting out the answers in kindergarten and the second time was for yelling obscenities at another school that we had played kickball against. I also do not remember almost fifty years later what exactly she said to me, but I do remember she expected more. 

Many years later I find myself working for Carol Boigon, former Mayoral appointee for the Mayor’s Office for Education and Children in Denver, Colorado. I was hired by Carol as a consultant, then as a city employee. Carol was a former newspaper writer. She pointed out that we needed minutes for every meeting because we received public funding sources, and she expected those minutes to be perfect. Needless to say, we had tons of meetings. 

Like the first time I was pulled aside by my teacher, I was shocked that my minutes and other written material never cut the mustard with Carol. I had worked previously for a former nun, Adele Phelan, who taught English, then went on to become president of a private college in Denver, Colorado. Adele thought my writing was professional and though she did ask to see everything before it went out, the red marks were few and far between. After Carol would read what I handed her, however, each page looked like it was cut to the quick and bleeding to death. 

I will admit that I gave up. I lost confidence. Carol ended up writing and I would edit. Somehow, I had convinced her that I could not put two sentences together.

A couple of years later, Adele, in post-retirement, came to also work for Carol. Lo and behold, Carol began trying to get Adele to write differently too. I then realized that it was not all me. Carol’s style of writing was shaped by her newspaper experience. Though I will always use the assistance of an editor, I now know that I need to ensure that the editor understands my style of writing and the audience that I hope to engage. 

When I wrote my dissertation, it was not edited for sentence structure, but rather for  conciseness and for the relationship of the research to my arguments and conclusions. I very much appreciated the time and energy that my dissertation committee, led by Dr. Shelley Zion, put into it, especially since they were not paid for their time. I learned that editors are indeed gifts.

Now that I am finishing up a graduate writing certificate program at the University of Nebraska Omaha, I cherish the feedback I receive. Literary nonfiction is very different from my professional writing. It is also different from the academic writing I did for my masters and doctoral programs at the University of Colorado Denver. In my current program, my fellow students and professors workshop my pieces, and the feedback is incredibly useful. One of my pieces was published – “Summer of ’68: Crab Feast” in The Linden Review, and my editor, Jody Keisner, was a champion, utilizing Jane Friedman’s three Cs of being clear, communicative, and compromising in her relationship to me as an author. 

It is my hope that I will continue to learn and not be shocked by the input or feedback I receive on my writing. Yet, I will also use discernment and express my opinion when I feel that someone is forcing me to revise in a way that makes me feel a lack of confidence or does not preserve the integrity of my work.  

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Lisa R. Roy is the Director of Program Development at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.  She has a doctorate in leadership for educational equity from the University of Colorado Denver.  Lisa is a mother of three grown children and a grandmother of the three most precious children on the planet, and she is an avid genealogist.    

Our Beloved Writing Organizations Need Us. Now You Can Win Prizes for Helping Them

December 7, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Lisa Cooper Ellison

I haven’t worked on my memoir in two months. A small part of me believes this isn’t supposed to happen. As a writer and coach, my creative tool belt is packed with strategies. But when the world is big and I feel small, those strategies can’t prevent my stories from crawling right back into my belly button.

When that happens, I turn to my writing community for inspiration.

I know how precious this community is. I drafted my first stories in the early 1990s. Back then, the only two writer hangouts I knew of were coffee shops and college classes. At the time, I was a college dropout, which only left one option. Sometimes I’d stand in the back of local coffeehouses on open mic night, praying for the courage to share my work. Occasionally I’d read, but I never felt cool enough to ask the “real” writers if I could join them. Instead, I wrote alone. If my stories hadn’t been so persistent, I might’ve given up.

Thankfully, my writing community is now only a click away. It’s given me so much over the years. I turn to Brevity for Allison K William’s posts on building your author platform and her anti-huckster brand of self-promotion. Abby Alten Schwartz’s essay about thinking like an art director and Brenda Miller’s case study on the hermit crab form inspire me to see my work in new ways. But the ones that feed my soul remind me not to give up, like Chelsey Drysdale’s 100 agents and Shiv Dutta’s Never Too Late: On Finding a Literary Life. I soak in each writer’s successes, setbacks, and tenacious belief in their stories no matter how long and daunting the way ahead seems.

The writing organizations we depend on have spent the past eighteen months playing a whack-a-mole-style game of pivot. Some reinvented programs or invested in equipment so they could transition classes and conferences online. Others offered generous refund policies to help writers feel safe registering for in-person events at a time when uncertainty was the norm. Pre-pandemic, most ran on volunteer sweat and budgets that barely covered expenses. Now, they must account for the additional costs required to sustain themselves during COVID and the learning curves demanded by new systems. 

Last year, I created a #Giveaway4Good campaign to support writers and communities as we weathered the relentless COVID doldrums. Each week I designed challenges that asked you to support charities, writing organizations, independent bookstores, and other writers in exchange for prizes. Together, we raised over $24,000—a response that fueled my courage and creativity during the first half of the year.

This fall, I’m in a creative trough caused by overwork, recent losses, and a broken middle finger. In the face of these setbacks, the world seems big, and I feel small. So once again, I’m leaning on our beloved community, but this time I’m also giving back by running a second #Giveaway4Good campaign.

Last week, writers earned tickets by donating to charities. This week, donate $10 or more to your favorite literary organization will receive one ticket toward my drawing for a $30 gift card to New Dominion Bookshop, PLUS one copy of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to BookThe War of ArtGetting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative NonfictionDoodling for WritersThe Best of Brevity, The Business of Being a Writer, and a signed copy of My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson.

You’ll also be entered into my grand prize drawing for a one-year membership to James River Writers, a 3-pack of webinars from The Crow Collective Online Writing Workshops, one Jane Friedman webinar of your choice, a 10-page manuscript review plus one-hour coaching session with me, and a query letter review by Allison K Williams.

Those of you who donate to Brevity, Hippocampus Literary Magazine, or James River Writers will receive three tickets into this week’s drawing.

Generous donors of $100 or more will get access to a mindful writing class scheduled for early 2022 and a chance to win a storytelling coaching session with Amy Eaton.

All you need to do is email me a screenshot of your donation (name of the organization and amount only) and sign up for my newsletter. That’s it.

Low on funds?

Support these organizations online by subscribing to their newsletters, following them on social media, and sharing two social media posts about a current offering or why you love them so much. Send me email proof, and you’ll earn one ticket into this week’s drawing.

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write this post given how challenging the past two months have been. But then I read a few Brevity blogs and thought of the good we’ll do. Your words and this community make me feel brave, big, and connected, and as a result, my creativity is flowing again.

Lisa Cooper Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Huffington Post, and The Guardian, among others. 

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