What The New York Times ‘Guest Essay’ Means for the Future of Creative Nonfiction

July 23, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Zoë Bossiere

In April, The New York Times announced that the paper’s “Op-Ed” opinion section, established in 1970, would be rebranded as “Guest Essays.” This seemingly small change, made with minimal fanfare, actually marks a momentous shift for the creative nonfiction essay. The essay has existed much on the fringes of literary writing and journalism since Michel de Montaigne penned his Essais in 1580. Famously, even he thought them a waste of time, warning readers, “I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.”

While the essay as a form— a written attempt, an experiment, a method of discovery through the process of the writing, itself—is now centuries old, in the publishing world it has only officially existed since 1983, when it was placed under the umbrella term “creative nonfiction” for the purposes of National Endowment for the Arts fellowship category and university course programming. But far from the dry research papers most students associate them with, the essay is alive with the obsessions, anxieties, and jokes of the day.

When one teaches and studies the essay, as I have devoted my academic career to doing, one begins to see it everywhere. In addition to those essays that might appear in venerable literary publications such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, or The Sun, increasingly the essay also pops up in our social media feeds, sometimes in the form of Twitter threads on depriving one’s daughter of beans, or rehoming the demonic Chihuahua from hell.

Social media in general has contributed to the ascension of nonfiction in popular culture—our insatiable appetite for true-to-life stories told by real people. However, as NYT editor Kathleen Kingsbury observes in her explanation of the new Guest Essay, “What is disappearing [online]…are spaces where voices can be heard and respected, where ideas can linger a while, be given serious consideration, interrogated and then flourish or perish.”

I tend to agree with her. The breadth of perspective that can be conveyed in a single social media post is limited. As we spend more and more time reading shorter and shorter paragraphs of text, our attention spans are shrinking along with the size of the posts we consume—a condition that’s been exacerbated by our increasingly-online pandemic lives. Not every issue can, or indeed should, be elucidated in even the longest thread of 240 characters or less.

The “Guest Essay” rebrand provides a subtle but important distinction. More than the simple expression of opinion, an essay is rhetorically savvy and, often, emotionally affecting. Now, as the issues of the day become increasingly complex and multifaceted, the essay can be an important way—perhaps the only way—to navigate nuanced, complicated, and seemingly contradictory perspectives. (Which is not to say all viewpoints are ethically equivalent.)

As a writing teacher, I encourage my students to view an issue not as a double sided coin—a two-dimensional “for” or “against”—but as a prism with multiple stakeholders and rationales. The essay allows the writer to engage with her subject on a deeper level, to get at the heart of an issue and take the reader on a journey that isn’t fueled by the immediate emotional reactions—such as outrage—that many shorter “takes” engender.

In addition to teaching the essay, I am also the managing editor here at Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, where we exclusively publish short nonfiction essays of 750 words or fewer. The essays submitted to us touch on a range of experiences by writers from all walks of life—women writers, BIPOC writers, trans and queer writers, and disabled writers, to name a few groups. Far from Montaigne’s original assertion that the self is “vain” and “frivolous,” the essay has become the mode du jour of contemporary thought in a time when the personal is inevitably determined by the political.

Though essays are written for a myriad reasons and in many varied forms, the common purpose of the contemporary essay in the public sphere is to foster well-informed critical thought and radical empathy for perspectives not our own. To provide readers a window into the proposals, interpretations, and aspirations that shape our diverse world.

The birth of The New York Times “Guest Essay” places the nonfiction essay firmly into the spotlight of socio-political discourse just when we as a country need it most. In the ensuing decade, we will need to read essays by the trans folx whose rights are in danger of being legislated out of existence, by the undocumented immigrants and their children who have been detained in cages at the border, by the many communities who continue to be devastated by gun violence and police brutality, and far too many more to list here.

Because at its heart, the essay speaks to those quintessentially human parts of ourselves that colder, jargon-laden editorial and journalistic articles can’t quite replicate. Though the NYT’s track record is far from perfect, the emergence of the essay in the world’s most widely-read newspaper comes at a crucial time, offering potential for a new era of empathy and reflection in public discourse.

____

Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, where she studies and teaches creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity, and the co-editor of its anthology, The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press). Find her online at zoebossiere.com or on Twitter @zoebossiere.

Giving Up on Giving Up

July 20, 2021 § 10 Comments

By Kirsten Voris

Photo by Bill Hatcher

Five rejections in two months. I should be congratulating myself. It’s simple math—submitting more = more rejection.

I still find the stream of “nos” dispiriting. And draining. I was at the bottom of the drain, and calling a summer submissions break, when I attended How to Publish Your Writing in Literary Journals. The editors of Radar Poetry, Rachel Moles and Dara Shrager, appeared as part of a free monthly Zoom series on writing and publishing, offered through Authors Publish Magazine. (Which, by the way, is a great resource for fee-free submission calls.)

I was looking for surefire acceptance tips. What I heard was more math. The “pandemic effect” meant submissions to Radar Poetry’s 2020 summer contest were up by 50 percent from 2019. Increase in competition = higher bar = more rejection. I felt a touch less dejected.

Then Rachel and Dara shared the news that there are different kinds of rejection. That rejection is nuanced. Sometimes, they said, rejection is an invitation to try again, with a different piece of writing.

I’d imagined rejection emails were boilerplate assigned at random each time the editor pressed their big, red “no” button. Some are short, some have two paragraphs. Some describe the sheer volume of spectacular essays cascading through the submissions window. Some wish me luck, elsewhere. All of them amount to the same thing. Or so I thought.

Not so. Rejection, it turns out, is tiered. The difference between a standard rejection and a tiered rejection is encouragement.

A tiered rejection may not refer to the name of your piece. But if the editors have read your work with interest, enjoyed your writing, and/or encouraged you to submit again, this is good news.

Google “tiered rejection” and you’ll find increasingly granular breakdowns. Here, I offer a simple, three-tiered cake:

Top-tier rejections come with suggestions for improvement, praise of particular elements, encouragement to resubmit.

The middle tier includes the invitation to resubmit, perhaps praise for your story, and regret that it’s not the right thing for right now.

Standard rejections are a brief statement of polite regret, scrubbed free of reassurance or praise. And, like the foundational, bottom tier of the wedding cake, most of us get a slice of this.

Rejection is part of writing for publication. Sadly, my usual reaction doesn’t reflect this understanding.

I internalize rejection as an erasure—of my person, my sensibility, my ability to string words together. I cop an ungracious attitude. Get resentful and act like a baby– in front of my cat. This has nothing to do with journals or editors and everything to do with the climate of my upbringing. Thankfully, amassing rejections has made it easier for me to see this pattern. Which means I can change it—at my leisure.

Here is where I admit that I haven’t actually read my rejections. I skim. Absorb the sting and try to forget. Which cuts me off quite neatly from actionable information. What would happen if I went through my Submittable queue? Dug out the most demoralizing rejections and read them? What, I wondered, is actually in there?

The contest rejection that felt so cold? “Judges change every year, we hope you’ll consider submitting again…”

The third rejection of a piece I love? “You’re a good writer and this is a difficult task…”

Armored in a new mindset, I began to see the difference between “Unfortunately this is not a fit” and “We read your submission with great interest.” I begin warming to my oft-declined pieces, because maybe they weren’t so terrible. Maybe it is the math.

Even better, I found myself interacting with my rejections. Responding, instead of reacting. And one potential response to a tiered rejection is to resubmit.

When you resubmit, choose a new piece; then help the editors remember how much they liked you. Duplicate the language of the tiered rejection, and reference the previously submitted work in your cover letter.

For example if the rejection said, “We read your work with interest and hope you’ll consider sending us another piece,” you could write “Last year you read Y with interest and said you hoped I’d consider sending another piece.”

Some standard rejections always invite resubmission. If you’re not sure where your rejection falls, head over to Rejection Wiki, where you can search for sample rejections by journal, to determine whether yours is standard or special.

Radar Poetry’s Dara and Rachel wanted us to know that the editor who sends a tiered rejection is overwhelmed with submissions. They have day jobs, their own writing projects, small children. Despite this, they took time that they didn’t necessarily have to send you a personal message of hope. Because they think you have promise.

The fact of tiered rejection blew open my all-or-nothing thinking.  Knowing the nuances is compelling me to read my email. To give up on giving up. Rejection, like everything else, is complicated. In fact, it may actually be a little cheer for you and your beautiful writing.

Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.

Small Press vs. Large: One Size Does Not Fit All

July 7, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Christina Consolino

My debut novel, Rewrite the Stars, launched in March with a small press. Reviews have been generally positive, something for which I’m immensely grateful, and some readers have even been so kind as to reach out via email. They’ve taken the time to say how the story has touched them or to commend me on the research I did to adequately portray a character living with PTSD. These emails breathe life into me. As an introvert, with a screen between me and the correspondent, it is easier to engage with my readers, and I enjoy the interaction.

Sometimes unexpected reviews arrive in my inbox with words that surprise me. Case in point: a message from a fellow author that said, “Wow. Your book is really well written.” Said author went on to imply she’d not expected a well-written book to come out of a small publisher.

Why not? I thought. I put as much (or more) time and energy into that book as any other author, including those published with the big houses.

That particular comment made me wonder about the viewpoints of other authors with respect to small publishers, and I took to observing questions and comments in various author-centric online venues. Multiple attitudes stood out to me:

  1. Small presses are fine, but I have more potential than that.
  2. Small presses are for authors who can’t find an agent.
  3. Small presses won’t do anything for your career.

I didn’t make any comments in those forums, but here’s what I might have said in response to those points of view:

  1. Readers and reviewers judge our stories. Go write the book that lives up to the potential you believe you have.
  2. Agents pass on a lot of good books, and agents don’t always sell books they’ve taken on. Agented authors often still publish with small presses.
  3. The first book is published, and I have that work and experience to point to if I want to pursue a bigger publisher next time. It’s my choice.

The author’s comment (and those views I found online) reopened my eyes to the bias people still hold against work published by small publishers. Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that the large publisher is still the gold standard. Want to read a book with great writing? Try one released by a large publisher. Want to read a novel with a compelling storyline? Make sure the author is agented. It’s the same bias I continue to see against those authors who choose to self-publish. It’s a bias that shouldn’t continue to stand. And yet, it does.

Why?

I don’t have a good answer, but I might have a good reminder. We’re all unique human beings with individual stories to tell. We each have different perspectives and experiences, and only we live our particular lives. When I sit to write in the mornings, I don’t share my table with anyone else but my cats (usually Benedict and Arnold, but sometimes Heathcliff wanders by that early too)—and they don’t write (at least not yet). So what’s put on my page comes entirely from my mind, through my own lens.

Later, as my stories go through revision, that process will be unique too. Perhaps I make entire passes or tackle one chapter at a time. Maybe I look for one character and revise their arc or check on setting and description. But again, I’m working with my lived experiences to inform that revision, which are unique to me.

And finally, as I ready my work for possible submission, that journey will be all my own. Other authors can have similar stories to tell, but they did not receive the rejection from the agent that said, “Not for nus [sic]” or the acceptance on the short story that talked about the “urgency in the character’s actions.” They didn’t juggle sending out submissions while taking care of my four children, working multiple teaching jobs, and dealing with my aging parents, one of whom has Alzheimer’s.

A question interviewers like to ask debut authors is: “What can you tell us about your journey to publication?” Writers jump on those stories, finding camaraderie in the similarities and marveling in the differences. If we’re so willing to consider that the journey can differ for anyone, why can’t we accept that the end publishing goal might also differ?

But that, my friends, is the beauty of the current publishing world. What works for me might not work for you, and that’s okay. Just because some of us willingly choose to publish with small presses (or self-publish) does not necessarily mean that our work is inferior. “One size fits all” doesn’t apply here, and it’s time for us, as writers, to realize that.
__

Christina Consolino is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in multiple online and print outlets. Her debut novel, Rewrite the Stars, was named one of ten finalists for the Ohio Writers’ Association Great Novel Contest 2020, and she is the co-author of Historic Photos of University of Michigan. She serves as senior editor at the online journal Literary Mama, freelance edits both fiction and nonfiction, and teaches writing classes at Word’s Worth Writing Center. Christina lives in Kettering, Ohio, with her family and pets.

How Writers Learn and Grow

June 16, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Aimee Christian

This spring, I attended my first writing conference, and it was almost embarrassingly life-changing.

For a long time, I wondered how people just sit down and write a book and send it off to an agent and then get it published. Where do they find the discipline? How do they know it’s any good? How do they know when it’s done? And then wait, when we study craft, are we saying these writers did these things intentionally? They didn’t just sit down and dash off sheer brilliance? They knew what they were doing?! So many questions!

I am forty-eight and now I finally know. They don’t just sit down and write perfection. They too had to learn it from somewhere.

For the past year I have been taking the class to end all writing classes. A year long memoir incubator. That name should say it all. A year ago, I had little more than a folder full of bits and pieces of creative nonfiction from fits and starts at writing. I applied to the class with 50 not-terrible pages. They were premature, and I had more ideas, all in desperate need of incubating. So for a year, I wrote. Through the pandemic. Through a change of jobs, remote school for a disabled kid (read: no school) and another kid (read: not enough school), getting and surviving COVID, losing my father, and more. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And in the process, I learned more about writing and about myself in this year than ever before.

In this class, we also read. We read each other’s half-baked manuscripts, we read excellent memoirs, we read craft books and essays. We picked pieces apart, we studied craft, we learned to give feedback and make edits both developmental and line by painstaking line.

As the third trimester of the class began to near its end, our brilliant and patient teacher prepared us for the conference. Her process was well thought out. We prepped as though we were querying: writing synopses of our manuscripts, picking out agents we might want to meet with, practicing our pitches.

That I was even able to follow the lingo in the conference: prompt, comps, query, proposals, prologues, revisions, writer vs author, memoir vs autobiography, and more, just shows how much I learned in a year. I didn’t know any of that a year ago.

Overall, the conference was humbling. The content was both about writing and about all the steps that come after it, and because it was virtual, we didn’t have to choose one session over another. They were all recorded, so we were able to see one and then go back and watch the others later. It was a lot of information, all varying degrees of useful, all of them leading me to one (long) conclusion, which is my new mantra:

I am not quite done with my manuscript, I have a community of writers around me, I have lots of resources, I need to avail myself of them, and when I am ready to query I will know it, and I will be successful even if it takes me a very long time and success doesn’t look the way I think it should right now.

But most of all, I WROTE A BOOK. And I know it’s gonna be a good one, too, because now I have help I didn’t have before. My friends and I read each other’s work and we can see easy improvements in each other’s pieces that we can’t see in our own. I can move paragraphs or sentences around in someone else’s essay in minutes but hang on to pages and pages in my own manuscript for dear life that a fellow writer can take a quick red pen to and say “this has to go” and when she does, I know immediately that she’s right. Or she can offer a pointed “Like what?” or “How?” to a sentence which makes the story I’m trying to tell so much clearer.

I know I am late to the party here. You probably know all this. But now I know, too. I won’t go it alone anymore because I don’t have to. This is how writers learn and grow. It makes us better writers, better editors, and overall better members of the writing community. Count me in, for however long it takes.
____

Aimee Christian is a Pauline Scheer fellow at GrubStreet, where she is working on a memoir about adoption and identity. Her essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Pidgeonholes, Romper.com, PopSugar Family, and elsewhere. She is on Twitter and Instagram at @thewriteaimee.

Giving Up the Ghost

June 7, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Cynthia DiTiberio

A couple years ago, when the first copy of one of the books I had written arrived from the publisher in the mail, I held it proudly, seeing all the words I had carefully pieced together beautifully designed on the page. I then flipped to the back of the book, to unearth my name from its contracted place in the acknowledgements.

You see, it was both my book, and not my book at all.

I am a ghostwriter. The books I write don’t really belong to me. Though I have sometimes written every single word that appears on each page, oftentimes my participation is hidden, by design.  

When my oldest daughter walked into the room and I held the book up for her to see, she looked at me, her blue eyes crinkled in confusion. 

“But where’s your name?”She asked. “Shouldn’t your name be on the book, too?

I paused as I stared down at the cover. I couldn’t deny I felt the same way. But I had agreed, many months before, that my contribution wouldn’t be credited. Now, however, it no longer felt like a good deal.

“That’s not how it works,”I explained, trying to convince her as well as myself.“My role isn’t public. The ideas in the book aren’t mine. I just helped someone write what was in their head all along.” 

“They would never let us do that in school,” she said, matter of fact, already self-assured at eight-years-old. “Promise me, Mommy, next book, will you make sure they put your name on the cover?” 

There was something about hearing those words from my daughter that made me finally wonder if credit was something I deserved. 

Then 2020 hit and with it, untenable working conditions. When I turned in a manuscript in May, I was burnt out. I had written eleven books in eight years, the last one during the grueling experience of shelter-in-place and remote school. When you are a ghostwriter, they expect you to write fast, otherwise, what are they paying you for? Everyone thinks they could write their own book, if they only had the time. The pace was exhausting. I needed a break. And after that conversation with my daughter, I began to wonder if maybe it was time to see what it felt like to write something of my own. 

I had always wanted to be a writer. I had filled notebooks as a child; idolized Anne Shirley and Jo March. At age twenty-two I had a specific book idea, with a title and subtitle, written in my journal.  At twenty-three, I was on my way, landing a dream job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house specializing in religious and spiritual books. Having graduated the year before with a major in religion, I felt triumphant to be able to prove that my degree wasn’t so useless after all.

I spent nine years working my way up to senior editor, learning the tricks of the trade.  But when I had my first child, and returned to full-time work with a 60-mile commute each way, I realized I was ready for a change and set out to create a freelance editorial business. The work that I most enjoyed, the actual editing, happened outside of the office anyway. I knew that we hired freelancers all the time. I had goodwill and all the contacts to make a go at it. 

To start, I worked predominantly for my previous employer. But then I began to take on projects with literary agents I had worked with in the past. Having once sat in the very seat of power, in the editorial board meetings where book proposals were dissected like frogs, I knew what it took to get noticed. Soon, writing book proposals turned into writing the books themselves. Before I knew it, I was a ghostwriter, writing other people’s books for them. 

I loved it. I spent hours on the phone with authors, identifying the themes they wanted to explore, getting a sense for their voice and the cadence of their teaching. I never had writer’s block, because the ideas weren’t mine; I just had to figure out how to translate them to the page. I didn’t have to worry about whether the books would sell, or how to sell them; my job was just to create. I got to live in the sweet spot, with none of the risk, but also, little of the reward.

As this year forced a pause on normal life, I thought, what better time to finally try and find myself on the page? I didn’t even know what I sounded like anymore. I hadn’t written in my own voice since college. But I knew it was time to try. 

I often joked that the reason why I was so selective about which authors I worked with was because whomever I was writing for lived in my head the entire time we were working together. For eight years, I had leased space in my brain to others. Once the tenants were out, I realized that my own thoughts had been drowned out by the psychic energy of others. To have my mind to myself again felt like the greatest luxury.

And yet it was also terrifying. Though I had been a “writer” for eight years, never before had I felt the prickle of fear that crawls up your neck when you see the rawness of your heart bleeding on the page. I had always written with someone else’s blood, nothing at stake.

But I knew it was time to let my words stand on their own, unshielded by someone else’s name. 

I know it is a long, grueling path, the life of a writer, trying to find places to publish, unearth people to buy your book. But maybe the point isn’t even to get readers, to be read, but the act of writing itself. Maybe I’m not writing to change others but to change myself. 

To listen to my own voice for once. And believe it has worth. 
____

Cynthia DiTiberio is a writer and collaborator who has worked in the book business for the past eighteen years. Books were her first love and remain her favorite thing in the world. She worked as an editor at a division of HarperCollins for nine years before becoming a ghostwriter. She has just started writing on her own after collaborating on eleven books over the last eight years. She was born in St. Louis, went to college in North Carolina, and has called the Bay Area home for the last nineteen years. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband and two children. Highlights of her career include getting to work with Frederick Buechner, having her second collaboration optioned by Reese Witherspoon, and being featured on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle at the age of twenty-seven for her work launching a new line of Christian fiction.

When the Contract Expires, and Your Publisher Gives You Your Book Back

May 14, 2021 § 29 Comments

By Dorothy Rice

The e-mail from the publisher of my first book popped into my mailbox on a Saturday. I was sitting in the wooden bleachers at a baseball game. My nine-year-old grandson was pitching. I didn’t open it, not only because I was cheering him on through the chain-link fence. I had no expectation of good news. After the game ended and we’d all hugged goodbye, I sat behind the wheel of my Subaru, blasting the air conditioning in an unseasonably hot Sacramento spring. I clicked on the email.

“I am writing to give you notice that The Reluctant Artist will be removed from our active title list on June 30, 2021 (hereafter the Termination Date).”

Which meant they would no longer sell my book. All rights would revert to me following the ominous sounding “termination date.” Mention of my freedom thereafter to publish the entire book or any of its individual poems let me know this was a form letter; there are no poems in The Reluctant Artist. I imagined a purge was underway and that many poets had received a similar missive. Out with the underachievers. A list my book belonged on. No quibble there. Royalty statements for the last two years of the contract were in the red. I wondered if I’d get a bill.

If I’m honest, I’d considered it an unexpected gift that it was published at all. With 73 pages of full-color photographs, it must have been expensive to print. Then there’s the size, smaller than a coffee table book, bigger than most others. And the contents. Neither fish nor fowl. A hybrid memoir/art book, written by a little-known writer about her even more obscure father.

Sitting in the hot car, air from the vents blasting my face, I skimmed it quickly and tossed it onto the passenger seat. I was used to impersonal rejection emails. This was sort of the same thing. Wasn’t it?

By the time I pulled into my driveway, I’d decided not to tell anyone. Not my husband, my sisters or kids (the primary audience for the book in the first place). Telling anyone would have made it too real.

The news nested somewhere in the back of my mind, behind conscious thought.

The following Monday, I sat beside my seven-year-old granddaughter, shuffling math worksheets and reading packets, organizing her materials for Zoom school. In the kitchen, I poured her favorite juice and spread Nutella on a toaster waffle. Savoring the scent of warm grains and melty chocolate, the termination notice resurfaced.

I’d grown accustomed to thinking of myself as the author of two books from small presses—not one, two. Five years passed so quickly; my quirky book fading in the sunset hadn’t crossed my mind. With a typical rejection, I could consider where to send it next, or perhaps undertake another round of edits. A published book ceasing to be “published,” losing its home, its advocate and legitimacy in someone’s eyes other than my own, felt different. An erasure, an accomplishment withdrawn.

I could tilt at more windmills by sending it out to other small presses. I could self-publish. A viable option for an e-book. Even if I could finance printing an art book, I didn’t think I wanted to.

I snuck my granddaughter her breakfast. Eating “on camera” wasn’t allowed, yet making Eva wait until the 9:30 break wouldn’t go well for any of us, least of all the teacher. We finished the Number of the Day worksheet (32) and a math assignment about telling time, the “real” way, with two hands on a clockface. I brewed a fresh cup of coffee, poured Eva more juice.

“Drink it fast,” I said. “It might stop the hiccups.”

Ten years ago, when The Reluctant Artist was conceived, my dad had just died. The two essays that became the nucleus for the text were about finding my way back to writing as my father, a lifelong creative, was dying. I loved his art and harbored no doubts about its merits. I was not so confident about my own abilities or identity as a writer.

I retrieved a well-thumbed copy of the book from my office and smoothed the cover with the flat of my hand— a self-portrait of my father from the sixties. Returning to Eva, my steps were light. Proud, nostalgic, and grateful, for Dad, and the writer I was.

During the 9:30 break, we watered the vegetables we’d sprouted from seeds then moved to wood-framed beds in the backyard.

“Look Grandma, this tomato has flowers.” Eva pointed to a spidery yellow blossom.

I was reminded of something I’d read and heard said several times. That you could write the same book every ten years and each time it would be entirely different.

Eva flitted from plot to plot, waving the misting hose like a magic wand. I’d water more carefully after our morning together ended. The Reluctant Artist had felt safe, finite and contained, a package. Yet themes and ideas I’d struggled with before and since are there, embedded in the text, their surface barely scratched, likely only discernible to me.

With Covid-19 and quarantine, my writing had suffered pandemic paralysis. Perhaps it was Spring’s arrival or that the economy and schools were slowly reopening. Or maybe it was the vaccines in mine and others’ arms. A sense of emerging on the other side, ready to pick up where I’d left off, or, better still, to begin a new page.

I wasn’t the same person or the same writer I was ten years ago. No longer hesitant to explore deeper, murkier corners—to pose questions, struggle to answer them and not feel I’ve failed if I only manage to come up with more questions.

To the persistent hum of bees sipping lavender pollen, I sensed the delicate pulse of new words, new thoughts and new ways of expressing them. I was excited to discover what would grow. Much as I anticipated the bounty of tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and beans to come. Promises for now, setting down roots, reaching for the sunlight, beckoning the bees.
___

Dorothy Rice is the author of two memoirs, Gray is the New Black (Otis Books, June 2019) and The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015). After raising five children and retiring from a career managing statewide environmental protection programs, Rice earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert, at 60. Dorothy co-directs the literary series Stories on Stage Sacramento, reads submissions for Hippocampus Magazine, and works for 916 Ink, a youth literacy nonprofit.

Writing in the Trenches

May 12, 2021 § 12 Comments

By Candace Cahill

I am a rule follower. But I am also independent, resilient, and stubborn. I like to do new things and expand my knowledge. So, in the summer of 2019, I set out to write a book. Was I a writer? No. Am I now? Absolutely. Well, I’m learning anyway.

Writing the book itself was an adventure. The initial draft felt like going on a ten-mile hike, falling at the two-mile marker, and continuing despite bloody knees and palms. During the second draft, my wounds wept, then became itchy and crusty. On subsequent revisions I aired the scrapes, let them dry out and scab over, then soaked them lovingly in long, hot baths and applied ointment. Throughout the process, I fought self-doubt and imposter syndrome. And still do, but the scabs have fallen away, leaving tough scars and proof of my journey.

Now, I am on to the next stage of the process: pursuing publication.

If I want to go the traditional route, which I’ve discovered is the Holy Grail for most writers, I must get an agent. As the first in a series of gatekeepers within the realm of publishing, their job is to put my needs and desires as an author first. An agent would promote my work through an intricate courting process to big-time publishers, who only accept agented submissions. But—and this is a big but—the agent must choose me as a client. Therefore, I have sent passionate letters in hopes of luring one of them to love me. Have you ever gone about ‘looking for love?’ Yeah, kind of…counterintuitive. But this is the no-money-up-front option, which is particularly appealing to an out-of-work Alaskan tour guide in the era of covid-19.

Hybrid-publishing presents like an ‘a la carte’ menu for writers. They offer a team of professionals, all under one roof, who help an author develop and publish a well-constructed, marketable book. The single biggest difference is that the author foots the bill. Hybrids are not vanity presses. A hybrid press has a submission/acceptance process, seeks excellence in product outcome, and cares about the author’s success. A vanity press will accept all offered material, if the author has the capital upfront, and throw it ‘as is’ between two covers, without any quality control.

The self-publishing route requires—or allows—the author to do everything themselves. Essentially, the writer hires independent contractors: an editor, proofreader, cover designer, formatter, etc., then submits the work to a publisher facilitator, like Amazon, Barnes, and Noble, or Apple Press. Perfect for the independently-minded micromanager. Hmmm.

So, as you can see, the selection of a publishing track creates a whole new level of fright and exhilaration. It’s like a hike across the Chilkoot Trail: thirty-three miles over a three-thousand-seven-hundred-fifty-three-foot pass carrying a thirty-pound backpack and sleeping in the cold after tying your food up in a tree.

When I completed my manuscript, I immediately sent out a round of query letters to agents, utilizing tools designed to assist me in my search, like QueryTracker. So far, I have not elicited the attention of an agent.

Yet.

Since January, I have sent thirty query letters, received one full manuscript request, seven rejections (two personalized), and the rest have been crickets. Not a bad showing, although yesterday when another rejection arrived, this one of my full manuscript, I resorted to dipping spoonsful of peanut butter into a bag of chocolate chips and stuffing them in my mouth.

Throughout this courtship process, I have rewritten or edited my query letter dozens of times. I participated in #PITMAD and began sending queries to small, independent presses that do not require agented submissions. I’ve written a respectable synopsis, am knee-deep in crafting a proposal, and attended numerous virtual writing events. Essentially, I am DIY-ing the sh*t out of this process.

But, I have yet to mention marketing, which is a whole other ‘opportunity’ for growth. In keeping with my hiking analogy: comparable to tackling the Appalachian or Pacific Coast Trail.

Nevertheless, I will forge on and head back to the querying trenches, because, as I’ve made abundantly clear, I am a rule follower.

____

Candace Cahill is a silversmith, musician, storyteller, and writer who lives in Denali, Alaska. You can find her work at ThomasCahillDesigns.com and https://mysonlostagain.blogspot.com/. Her work has been published by Severance and she is currently pursuing publication of her memoir, Goodbye Again.

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

May 6, 2021 § 22 Comments

My MFA taught me a lot about writing. It didn’t teach me jack about publishing. Yet somehow, I published. I queried. I got an agent. I’m publishing again. And through all that, I became someone who gets paid to teach people how to write and publish. I can tell authors how to write a query, when to send it and to whom. I can say why a manuscript is too short, what can be cut if it’s too long, and how to save a thousand dollars on editing with fixes you can do yourself in a (very intense) weekend. I can even make you like social media—and discover why you don’t really need quite so much of it.

I acquired this information long after I finished my MFA, and I got most of it for free. Two years before my first round of querying, I began reading 8 different agent blogs, going back in the archives a couple posts at a time until I’d read their entire blogs. In the process, I saw how publishing evolved 1998-2010, and learned whose taste (and advice) had been proven right. Since then, I’ve broadened my sources, keeping current with publishing news, platform-building trends, and writing techniques so I can share what I know with you.

Unless you’re also planning on becoming an editor/coach of both fiction and memoir, you don’t need to know everything I know. But you do need to know a lot. Fortunately, most of what you need is already available online, where you can access a wealth of writing, editing, platform and publishing information at your convenience, in your pajamas, for (mostly) free.

Sources I recommend:

Publishing

Writer Beware! the Blog covers publishing bad practices and scams, and they aren’t afraid to name names with documentation. Read as far back in the archives as you can, and you’ll know how to avoid existing scams and recognize new ones.

The #Amwriting podcast gives useful and specific information about the writing process, publishing and marketing from a literary agent, two authors, and a variety of special guests. Lively and fun listening!

Querying

While Query Shark (dormant, but excellent archives) focuses on fiction queries, watching how queries evolve from terrible to “send now!” and seeing common mistakes will teach you to improve your own.

Kate McKean’s Agents and Books newsletter has both free and paid versions ($5/month). Past newsletters include advice on querying, the parts of a book contract, and what to do when there’s a mistake in your book’s online listing.

Writing

Want writing assignments to magically appear in your inbox? Here they come! The Story and Spark newsletter offers biweekly craft lessons with a short story and a writing prompt. Matt Bell’s newsletter offers monthly writing exercises with wonderful context.

Jane Friedman offers frequent, inexpensive webinars (usually $25) focusing on different aspects of writing and publishing, with handouts, recordings, and Q&A. (My next one, Memoir From Memory, is May 27)

Creative Nonfiction magazine offers inexpensive webinars (usually $15-25) on writing and publishing, especially for those with a more literary bent. Upcoming topics include daily writing practice, incorporating details, and my own Writing Powerful Sentences.

It’ll take more of your time, but volunteer as a reader for your favorite literary magazine (just email them and ask when/if they need readers). Nothing will teach you more about the submission process, and what makes engaging writing, than seeing what actually arrives in a literary inbox.

Literary Citizenship

The weekly Virtual Author & Writer Events newsletter lists free and paid readings, classes, workshops, talks and author interviews. (You can list your own events, too!)

The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A, biweekly on Zoom, covers publishing, self-promotion and writing better, and includes networking time with other writers, and a lively chat box each episode. The May 11 episode will focus on querying.

Marketing

The gentle, Canadian podcast And She Looked Up Creative Hour, aimed at visual artists, has process, selling, and writing-life advice. Start with Episode 18: How to Get a Book Deal when Nobody Knows Who You Are.

Jane Friedman’s Sunday Business Sermons: Part of her service to the community, Jane’s a publishing expert sharing what’s made her successful, from mailing lists to online courses to how she gets everything done. Watch the replays on Facebook.

People who want to sell you something: Very often, experts and coaches offer free introductory webinars—usually about 30-45 minutes of information and another 20-25 minutes of “buy my services.” Social posting apps like Tailwind and Preview send regular newsletters with tips and tricks for using and enjoying Instagram. You might want their services eventually, but you can access the free information now. Websearch [topic I want to know about] + “free webinar” or “free training” and you’ll be amazed what pops up.

You can start reading/watching/listening casually, or plan a curriculum for yourself with regular times to learn, do additional research, and blog or write from your new information. However you do it, work self-education into your routine. I listen to Jane Friedman while I do the dishes; literary podcasts in the car. I bought a seated exercise bike so I can pedal while catching up on social media and newsletters (sorry, Peleton-eers).

Whether or not you have an MFA, educating yourself about publishing is a largely self-driven process. The truth is out there. It’s (mostly) free. And it’s up to you to find it.

Tell us in the comments who you love for writing and publishing info!

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to learn what she knows? Writing, editing, publishing and platform consultations can be booked here.

A Thumbnail Archeology, or, From Jottings to Contract & Beyond

May 3, 2021 § 4 Comments

By John Domini

It was wholly personal, first to last, yet I’d never have finished the book without thinking who else might read it and why — thinking, that is, of suspense, sequence, and the market.

At first it was only jottings, a diary. No Moleskin, rather a hand-sized spiral-bound thing off the Safeway shelves for “School Supplies.” I needed to get back to school, though I was approaching 40. I needed to start over, to forge a life that felt more honest. In the effort to renew, nothing proved so helpful as the old. More and more I worked out trips back to Naples, the ancient seaport where my father had grown to adulthood and I’d visited as a teenager. The downtown byways may have remained in continuous use longer than any around the world, and there I became a kid again. I traveled wrinkled yet wide-eyed, my knees creaking but my spirit developing fresh flex. Nowadays, almost three decades later, I can revisit the first stirrings of that renewal. I can browse again through my off-the-rack notebook.

The quaderno lies bundled with six or eight others, from subsequent trips. I have as well pages of newsprint which passages underlined or starred, and thick sheafs of exploratory prose, the earliest printed on dot-matrix. Between those fragments and the later, fuller MSS, I can retrace my own twenty-year journey from broken to whole.      

In making myself over, my go-to workshop became family’s native city. Rich with beauty and inspiration, it also held ugly secrets, tight corners that can suffocate hope. Two or three of my most disturbing discoveries concerned my own relations, even my father. The man died halfway through my learning, or re-learning, but his old stomping grounds continued to speak (as did his ghost, I’m convinced, a couple of times). I found that all my family complications, even the most recent, had some connection to ancient tribal ways. So too, my own reconstruction demanded I comprehend both new wounds and old scars.

Yet likewise integral to Domini Redux was a career in literature. Yes, “career” is a euphemism, in a country so unfriendly to the arts, and “literature” too remains a slippery slope. I lost my footing often, as I clambered into the second half of my life. Still, I committed to teaching books, writing about them, and what’s more to composing as many as I could, myself. I was all done with “business writing,” though the contracts were more reliable, and certainly more lucrative. From here on, I’d have to make do with other support structures, in particular magazines, newspapers, grants, and literary agents.

These came querying, or responding to my own, every now and again. Over time a long and winding time—I placed Naples pieces in major papers, in better quarterlies and a couple of slicks, and my research also won a substantial grant or two, carrying a whiff of prestige. Over a long time, more than one agent suggested a book.

These were men and women of decent sensibility, and I was hardly cold to the idea myself. The first title I ventured, as I worked up the first proposal, was Eternal Downtown, the last was Cooking the Octopus—and neither of those, as you can see, appear on the cover of the final. In one sense the whole process left me with nothing. A pair of file folders grew fat with rejections, concluding of course with a kiss-off from the agent, and I developed a churning nausea every time someone said “proposal.” Yet by now I can also make out how these labors had another, better outcome, over a long and winding time.

Each run at the materials, I realize now, put up some load-bearing wall for the structure that now stands complete. Even the scrapbook left from Eternal Downtown, saddled with the generic subtitle “biography of a city” (sorry; the agent insisted) — even that preschooler’s mudpie had an organization I continued to use thereafter. Each section, then as now, bore a title taken from the city’s timeless folk sayings. Indeed, when I named one MS Cooking the Octopus, I was citing such an aphorism: “the octopus cooks,” say the Neapolitans, “in its own water.” The many meanings of this strange old saw took me onto ripe farm terraces, thickly planted, where every row told a story. Then too, as I sorted out those stories, I recognized finally that they were all, one way or another, my own. That is, the best book I could bring out of my repeated immersions in Naples wouldn’t be journalism or history, but rather a text that combined such conventional elements with speculation and insight entirely my own, the murmurs that filled my head while I was submerged in the Tyrhennian — the very story I’d been living.         

In other words, twenty years after it began, I at last claimed my own project, declaring it a “memoir.” This in turn gave the thing a conclusion, one that I’d desired and eventually won, through meditation and hardscrabble. For wasn’t I a new man? Newly remarried, relocated more happily than not, with a shelf full of my own books and a passel of other scholarship and criticism, more esteemed than not? And if that’s where the story ended, then I had the story itself—the one about an old guy born again.

All well and good, but along with story comes a host of craft issues. At the outset of this piece, I used a pair of catchall terms, “sequence” and “suspense.” The other words for it fill the syllabi of seminars in Creative Nonfiction: pacing, grounding, the balance of research and experience and the manipulation of first person. I was constructing a narrative after all, describing a journey of the spirit. For it to compel and convince, each of the stages along the way required its own signal-flare, and each of these had to go off somewhere in Naples. The city limits still set the borders for my odyssey. The very idea of defining limits, however, goes to story. It takes two decades of my life and three millennia of urban life and provides them, together, a pleasing and comprehensible shape.   

The ultimate title, this Archeology construct, expresses a sort of contract with the reader. It implies a long stretch of time, but also a system for working through it. A dig has order and process—as does the recipe for a good ragù.

Yet when I speak of my project this way, like something with a clear sense of direction, don’t I sound a bit like a literary agent? Aren’t such compositional concerns all about pleasing potential readers? When someone takes up a book, they like to know they’ll get somewhere, and if an author can deliver, he or she has got a market. Come to think, now ten years past the end of my book’s twenty-year storyline, just calling it a “memoir” smacks of the market. An educated literary man, such as Domini 2.0, has to know that, lately, there’s been no hotter genre in publishing. Surely I could come up with a better name, less of a commodity and more of a quest…

What began as a scribbly and secret affair came to light only after I drew up a contract with the reader, and yet now it can’t help but wander off in still another direction. I wouldn’t have it any other way, actually. I can’t think of a more vivid demonstration for why I sought to spend my second life this way, with the endless surprises of storytelling.
__
John Domini’s
latest book is the memoir, The Archeology of a Good Ragù. He has four novels, including a loose trilogy set in Naples, three books of stories, and essays and criticism all over, including Lit Hub and the New York Times.

Your Voice is You

April 12, 2021 § 15 Comments

By Michelle Redo

About five years ago, I downloaded my first audiobook. It was Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road. She’d just been interviewed about it on the prominent public radio station I worked for and I thought it would be a great way to test drive my new Audible subscription. I climbed onto the elliptical machine at 5:30 am before the onslaught of my workday and hit play as I began to pedal. The narration opened by clarifying that the introductory sections would be read by the author, but the book itself would be narrated by Debra Winger. What the…? Gloria Steinem shopped out telling her own life story to someone else!?

I was aghast. I found it difficult to continue (although I did… Debra Winger wasn’t too shabby a substitute.) But I loved the experience of listening to a book and thereafter found myself searching for good listens by a single criterion, memoir narrated by the author. True, not every author is a great narrator by default, but they are indeed the keeper of meaning. This simple key unlocked Heather Harpham’s gentle voice revealing the struggle of her baby born with a life-threatening blood illness. I learned what I had in common with Trevor Noah as he told me about his religious mother growing up in South Africa. Shonda Rhimes confessed her year-long experiment to just say yes to all the scary opportunities that came her way, despite her fears and anxieties. As these people generously shared their lives with me, I’ve counted them as my friends. Friends who have sat down in front of a microphone, pretending it was my ear and told me their story. Themselves.

This wasn’t so different from my job at the radio station, working with reporters and hosts to promote their features or shows. One day a new reporter followed me into the sound booth next to my office. She was young but super accomplished. She’d been published in the New York Times and The Atlantic, had a PhD From Oxford and was a Rhodes Scholar.

 She looked over the promo script I’d written about her story as I closed the door behind us. We hadn’t worked together yet.

“I know I have a high voice.” Her eyes flashed a pre-emptive confession. “I’ve been told to try and use my chest voice.”

Her voice is indeed high, perhaps obscuring her expertise and experience. But if I had a hundred dollars every time a female reporter said that to me… well, I’d have hundreds of dollars. They’d been told to use a more demure sound. Bring the tone down.

I too had been told this in my twenties. I did sound young. Worse, I sounded insecure (probably because I was insecure.) So I told myself, I didn’t really like talking anyway. I far preferred the scripting, directing, and editing side of the production glass. And in recent years I’ve noticed an increasing number of younger sounding voices on the radio. Voices that convey gravitas through their soprano register. At first, I felt a little resentful at what I’d missed out on. But I decided not to dish out what I’d gotten.

“Well, your voice is high…” I agreed with this reporter, “but that’s who you are. And you’re the expert on the topic of your story. So you can certainly assert what you have to say with confidence. Just hold your own with it.” In the years since, her reports have uncovered hidden toxins in drinking water; articulated nuances in important ballot questions; dug into the science behind the coronavirus in its early weeks. The “high-voiced” reporter has won numerous awards for her reporting.

Now I’m a freelancer, and as I was recently preparing to co-lead a workshop aimed at coaching writers in reading their own work aloud, my partner suggested we ask some writers what they’d most want to get out of such a class. I’d already begun compiling a tip sheet of techniques and practices for them… but their single immediate response? I don’t like my voice! How can I change it to sound better?

Uh-oh! I wasn’t expecting that!

My blunt response: you can’t.

Allow me to play this out…Your voice is your primal auditory thumbprint. It’s why a long-ago friend says, “It’s so good to hear you!” Our voices reveal emotion and meaning that words alone can’t. As with our writing, our voice is a simple thing to aspire to, yet an elusive, delicate piece of ourself to nurture, to coax. A unique gift that must be diligently, bravely unveiled. But simple is rarely easy.

So when you next find yourself in front of a microphone or an audience (let’s hope sometime soon!) remember this: your voice is the perfect vehicle to exemplify you, and bring the story of yourself to life. Your voice is you. I’m your listener friend out here, and I just can’t wait to meet you.
___

Michelle Redo is a freelance podcast producer and thirty-year award winning former public radio veteran at WGBH in Boston. She’s taught audio production at the Banff Centre. She’s at last sitting down in front of a microphone herself as the host her new podcast, Daring to Tell, which features writers reading their true essays, memoir chapters or non-fiction stories of personal daring.

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