Red Flags for Writers: When Publishing Goes All Wrong
May 26, 2023 § 29 Comments
By Lainy Carslaw
This is not an easy story to tell. Mostly because it’s embarrassing and I’m ashamed of my stupidity. And also because I still don’t know how this story ends.
But I want other writers to learn from my mistakes in their efforts to publish. So here we go.
At the beginning of 2021, I landed an agent (Yay!) I was on cloud nine and imagined that I was within reach of my life-long dream of publishing a novel.
I should have known better. There were signs.
It all started the previous year with me reading an article about a certain agent in the Huffington Post. She sounded professional—worthy of the book I’d been working on for close to a decade. Off my first 50 pages went.
The agent got back to me the next day (red flag # 1.) She said my book didn’t look quite ready but that it had promise. (Yay!) If I hired her editor and reworked it with her, she’d take another look. So, I was paired with a published author and I paid her to read my work.
The feedback was okay. And it got me excited to dive back into a redraft. Was it worth the $3,500 I paid her? (Probably not.) But when I was done, I resubmitted with the agent.
While I was awaiting a response, I came across an article in my Facebook feed entitled “Writers Beware.” I clicked on it and soon learned that companies that make you pay for in-house editing services are likely a scam. (Oh shit. Red flag # 2) My cheeks burned red and I began to panic. I sent my concerns to the agent in an email.
Just a few days later, she accepted my book (surprise, surprise!) Maybe that timing should have been red flag # 3, but I didn’t want to see it. So off to publishers she sent it…or so she said.
I started posting about having an agent and my expectation of finding a publisher and announcing that my book was about to be published! That’s when my former MFA director called me with some bad news. She had researched that agency and felt I needed to end my contract—immediately.
Did I listen? (No, I did not.)
I understood her worry but how could I quit when I was this close? What if I couldn’t find another agent? I couldn’t bear the thought of starting all over.
At the end of three months, my book was not picked up (surprise, surprise) but the agent said she had a solution—just pay her for more editing, the cover art, the marketing and she would publish my book through her own services. That’s when the last red flag fell down and beat me over the head.
I was finally able to walk away.
It’s been two years since then. Two more years of edits and queries and beta readers and I have to tell you—I’m done. I put my heart into that book. And I believe in it.
I refuse to let it die a lonely death in my file folder.
A few weeks ago, I made the difficult decision to self-publish. It was not an easy choice, but I have come to believe that’s what is right for me, right now. I have a full-time job. I have three kids. I don’t have a lifetime to waste writing the same query, the same synopsis over and over in hopes of finding an honest person to represent me.
I have come to believe that I have to represent myself.
A self-publishing company just sent me back my copyedits. For the first time since landing that sketchy agent, a part of me feels hopeful, like my book might actually be held in someone’s careful hands someday.
The other part is doubtful, and scared. There is still so much I don’t know about publishing and this whole process can seem daunting, so unfair. Writers have enough working against them (so, so much!) And to think there are those out there ready to prey on our dreams is almost unthinkable. I know I didn’t want to believe it. And yet, there they are. Hybrid publishers, vanity publishers, terrible agents…
Before I decided to self-publish I received an email from a local hybrid company offering to publish my book. I thought, maybe they’ll be different. But as luck would have it, I met someone who had worked there. “I had over 500 books I was in charge of,” this twenty-three year-old girl said. “They accept any book and then make as much money as they can off of you.” (WTF people!)
That’s the moment I knew I was done.
I pray for my fellow writers. I pray we can navigate this competitive, volatile, tricky landscape and get our words out into the world. I pray we can negotiate what is fair for our years of passion dedicated to our projects. I do not have the answers, but I know we need to weigh them carefully. We need to do our homework and not jump on the first thing that comes our way. (Oops!) I pray you are smarter and more aware than I was.
I pray our books find a home. We deserve that much.
Lainy Carslaw is a writer, gymnastics coach, and mother of three boys from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA from Chatham University and her work can be found in The Sandy River Review, The Nasty Woman Anthology, Pink Pangea, and several editions of the Madwomen in the Attic Anthology. She also writes for her local newspaper, The Hampton News. Her goal is to publish her book, Regrip, by the end of the year and do a better job when trying to publish its sequel. You can follow her on Instagram @lainycarslaw.
How Breadcrumbs Are Making Me a Better Writer
April 26, 2023 § 21 Comments
By Amanda Le Rougetel
They say teachers make the worst students, but I am loving my writing apprenticeship program—and I am top of the class.
True, it’s a class of one and a self-initiated, self-directed training program, but naming it My (big fat) Writing Apprenticeship makes it real and fuels my drive to keep learning my craft.
During my college-teaching days, I taught communication skills across a wide variety of trades—from electricians to plumbers. Their apprenticeship programs focused on the practical application of their learning; therefore, we focused on how to communicate effectively with their clients in real-life situations.
Every day brought new challenges, as the students turned their hard-learned theory into hands-on practice. Learning by doing—that’s what made sense to them, and I think of them often as I pursue my own program.
I launched it in April 2018 by reading Jane Friedman’s seminal text, The Business of Being a Writer. I took copious notes, signed up for Jane’s free newsletter, and began to read her blog. I learned about developing an author brand, using social media to build a platform, preparing the different types of bios authors need (kitchen sink, capsule, social media, and professional), working for exposure versus working for pay, and so much more.
Using the “breadcrumb method”—where one resource leads to another and to another—Jane’s blog introduced me to Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project and her iconic algorithm: “It’s about X as illustrated by Y to be told in a Z.” For example, it’s about learning the craft of writing as illustrated by my apprenticeship program told in a Brevity Blog post. I play with the formula when I am mapping out a piece of writing—so helpful to have something concrete to fill that daunting blank page.
Like any decent program, mine includes electives. I am a long-time reader of the Jungle Red Writers blog: “7 smart and sassy crime fiction writers dish on writing and life. It’s The View. With bodies.” While I don’t aspire to write mysteries, I do read them for pleasure and have learned a lot from the JRW blog about plotting and planning and promoting books—learning that is transferable to my own much shorter pieces. Some of the JRW authors write more than one book a year: an output I see as a masterclass in the discipline of an exacting daily word count.
My program also knows the value of throwing the student into the deep end as a way of testing knowledge and priming confidence. So, I began to co-teach local writing courses in a community classroom. I had to do a lot of research—talk about breadcrumbs!—which led me to Brenda Miller and Dinty W. Moore.
From Brenda, I learned that creative nonfiction is about “telling it slant,” that the hallmark of a CNF essay is the intimacy of the writer’s voice speaking to the reader, and that essays can be, among other things, braided.
From Dinty, I learned about flash CNF and flash fiction, soon arriving at Brevity, then Brevity Blog, where my writing world was split wide open. Oh, the jubilation when I discovered a whole community of people who, like me, prefer to write short!
Over the past 18 months, my program has ramped up, with increased expectations. Sheesh, this program is not for the faint of heart. It demands that I read widely, write daily, and submit consistently. I do all three, and in addition I attend webinars led by Brevity’s own Allison K Williams, as well as by Marion Roach Smith, Jane Friedman and others.
Along the way, I encountered Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula program, a book-focused community of authors who publish their work independently and share their experience in Facebook groups and podcasts. I also joined online writers’ groups and routinely click on the links in authors’ bios to explore their websites and publications. That is how I discovered Becky Tuch’s Lit Mag News on Substack. Last October, I took a four-week flash fiction workshop through Smokelong Quarterly, and in January, I made it through to round two of the NYC Midnight Madness micro fiction contest.
Breadcrumb learning is fun, productive and rewarding. I have had pieces published here on Brevity Blog, on 50-Word Stories, with others forthcoming on Brevity and Five Minute Lit—proving to me that the effort I am putting into my bespoke apprenticeship program is paying off.
But does that mean graduation is in sight?
Well, no. Graduation is not part of this program. Any apprentice worth their salt knows that learning never ends and craft demands that we apply our skills in ever-more challenging contexts. My (big fat) Writing Apprenticeship Program will be running for as long as this student can put finger to keyboard.
A retired college instructor, Amanda Le Rougetel now blogs at Five Years a Writer and teaches courses through Writing as Tool for Transformation. Her focus is flash-length CNF essays, 50-word fiction, and 100-word micro-memoir. Find her on Chill Subs.
In Favor of Clicking the Submit Button Too Soon
April 24, 2023 § 31 Comments
By Kate Langenberg
It was a fairly straightforward challenge: write an essay of no more than 500 words about a vacation gone wrong.
I hadn’t been looking to enter a contest about travel writing. I was just reading the news online like I do every morning and happened to click on the book club section where I found the call for submissions. I laughed a little as I remembered the mishaps my husband and I had had on our honeymoon.
Being adventurous and thinking we were invincible, we had rented a car and driven through northern Italy. The rental, a standard-issue Fiat with front-wheel drive, might have worked out great had we intended to stick to highways and main roads, but that would have been boring, and we were not boring people. Main roads were for tourists who didn’t like to veer off the beaten path. We were determined to veer—which we did, straight into a giant pothole on a dirt-covered, boulder-strewn road that swallowed one of our tires and left our rental car—and our ability to travel to our next destination—in a precarious state.
I whipped up an essay about that experience almost fifteen summers ago: how we ended up with a flat tire that was completely unfixable, and how we had to drive around with a donut recommended for a very limited number of kilometers at low speed. It was a ridiculous situation, considering we were scheduled to drive to Florence in a few days to catch a train heading south. The route to the city—the entire country, really—was full of winding, hilly roads populated by drivers familiar with the terrain and eager to speed through it.
We scrapped our plans, including our day trip to Siena, and made the best of staying close to our Greve hotel, which ended up being a wise and relaxing choice.
I wrote the essay in the span of an afternoon. I stepped away to walk my dog, returning an hour later to review my word choices and word count and to shorten a few paragraphs. It was a little long, but I liked the story, and I figured if a matter of 100 words would keep the website from publishing it, then it wasn’t meant to be. This was me choosing not to overthink it. I plugged the text into the submission form and sent it off.
Which is exactly what all the advice about writing and editing tells you not to do.
What you’re supposed to do is sit on anything you write and come back to it days, maybe weeks, later. You’re supposed to show it to other people, seek feedback, and not let your eyes be the only ones to read it. You’re supposed to find flaws that you’ll be glad to catch before the people wielding the gavels look it over.
Or, you could trust your gut.
You could listen to the little voice inside your head that tells you what you’ve written is good, and on that instinct, you could hit the submit button without obsessing for days or weeks over a few hundred words.
Of course, this approach might not make sense for every type of essay or piece of writing you create. Some pieces need to marinate; some need more time to come together. But when you have a story that flows easily from mind to page in your signature voice, it might be worth trusting your intuition that it’s good enough to submit because it came together in just a few hours.
As a chronic overthinker, this is not my usual process. I’m one of the people who does spend days and weeks editing and rewriting. I read sentences out loud to my husband, asking him which versions sound better. Sometimes it’s the most minor changes that leave me riddled with indecision.
I wonder, often, how much is too much time spent perfecting my writing? Am I perfecting it for myself or for someone else? The conclusion I frequently reach is that I’m doing it for someone else. It’s more difficult to discern what might appeal to other people, and that’s why my second drafts take so much time. There’s much less guesswork involved when I allow my voice to remain clear and strong instead of pushing it to the verge of something unrecognizable.
I was delighted to learn my essay had been chosen for publication. Trusting my instincts had been the right decision. The essay had come to me readily, and instead of second-guessing myself, I took a chance. I did what felt natural. I veered off the beaten path, hit submit, and this time I didn’t get swallowed by a giant pothole.
Kate Langenberg is a writer with a background in trade nonfiction book publishing, journal publishing, and marketing communications. Her essay, La Dolce Fiat, was recently published on Boston.com. She lives in Powder Valley, Pennsylvania. Read more on her website.
Rejection Is (Still) Not Feedback
April 18, 2023 § 12 Comments
By Allison K Williams
Five years ago, I wrote about rejection:
Rejection is not feedback.
Rejection is not feedback.
No really. Rejection. Is not. Feedback.
As writers submitting our work, we often get mad at ourselves and the process when our work is rejected. It’s easy to feel they thought my work was terrible, or I’m a bad writer, or I’ll never be any good.
None of those things can be determined from any single rejection.
The process of reading work for publication is not the process of reading to give feedback. When journal editors read, yes, they are evaluating the overall quality of the work. But they’re also asking, Does this fit our mission? Do I personally like it? Did we already accept something similar last week? They are assessing where the work fits in the overall structure of the magazine and its mission. A piece that isn’t the right fit must be let go, regardless of how good it is.
Our job as writers is to display our work to its best advantage, with skilled craft and professional format on the page. To enlist friends and fellow writers and teachers and mentors to give us constructive criticism, and to incorporate the notes that help us write the best essay or story or book we can. To do many drafts until we truly feel a piece is ready to send out. And that’s where our control stops. Like owning a clothing store, we can’t make the customer want our particular sweater–we can only be ready with an excellent sweater when they walk in, or a rack of options we’ve prepared to appeal to a selection of shoppers. We must focus on knowing our buyers, reading their journals, finding out about their taste and style and mission and what else they recently bought–not agonizing about why one person didn’t want one thing.
Last year, I wrote about rejection:
Author after author asks on Twitter, in writing groups and workshops—why can’t they just say what’s wrong? Make a checkbox or a copy-paste? At least tell me, is it the writing or the story or what? It would take thirty seconds!
…[Editors and Agents] don’t actually know what’s wrong with your book. They only know where they lost interest in the first pages. Maybe they don’t want to spend time with the hero. But if that problem gets solved on page 50, then “Your hero is unlikeable” could send an author into a long and fruitless revision, when the feedback they really needed was “Cut pages 1–49.”
What I wrote is still true. But what’s even truer is that very often, an essay rejection isn’t based on your actual quality of writing. Reading hundreds of essays sent in for workshops, working with clients, I’ve noticed key elements that are self-sabotaging many essays. None of them is bad writing. Every one of them can be fixed.
- Topics that aren’t new, or lack cultural relevance. If your work engages with an issue or topic that’s a hot conversation now (yes, even literary essays!), you’re more likely to catch an editor’s eye. This doesn’t mean you have to write about the latest hashtag. But part of what made The Crane Wife go viral was that women’s sense of doing all the emotional labor within relationships had become a larger conversation.
- An essay that’s a remembrance or a eulogy. Writing to honor your dead is a beautiful and important practice. It may not result in publishable work. Share it with your family, with the deceased’s other loved ones, on your blog or newsletter. But the dead lack meaning to those who didn’t know them. Your larger emotional context is rarely visible to the reader.
- Openings that give away the ending, or heavily foreshadow. Once you’ve told the reader what it’s all about with something like, “I had no idea this would be the worst day of my life,” they lean back. They stop engaging and start skimming, because they feel like they know what’s coming. Instead, start with a situation, mood or action that’s the opposite of the ending, or at least very different, so the essay takes the reader through change.
- Endings that wrap up with a tidy little bow or an explained moral. For literary work, allow the reader to deduce their own meaning from the cumulative effect of the essay without telling them what you meant. End with an image, or a thought that suggests expansion of the primary idea. For commercial work, your essay needs a tidy little bow–but it’s still not “and that’s what I learned from this whole experience.”
Submitting work often feels like dropping our words into a black hole. But editors often discuss on social media what they’re seeking. Reading the magazine you want to appear in is research, too. Rejection isn’t feedback–but as your skill and ease with writing develop, you’ll be able to give yourself the feedback you need.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts. Want to find out more about why your work is being rejected (and what to do about it!) Join her for the CRAFT TALKS webinar, Moving From Rejection to Publication April 26th at 2PM Eastern time (registrants also get the replay).
The Perils of Publishing: A Hidden Gift
April 12, 2023 § 3 Comments
Rejections and Setbacks Hurt, But Given Time, They Make Great Stories
By Pamela Jane
Before I began writing full-time, I pictured the glamorous life of a published children’s author waiting for me just around the corner.
My author fantasy seemed to be set in the 1940s: I work quietly at home, I don’t have to market or promote my books, and I’ve had the same editor for twenty years. She publishes everything I write, and my books stay in print forever. If I need a little extra money, I simply pick up the telephone and call her. She drops everything and rushes over to my office where she eagerly searches through my desk until she unearths a crumpled scrap of paper with a few scribbled notes.
“This will do!” she says.
Then she pays me on the spot and carries off my latest book.
I didn’t make that up. I read it in a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, author of the classic children’s books, Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny.
My rosy children’s-author fantasy did not include school visits where the kids ask if I can sign my books “Roald Dahl,” or bookstore readings where someone comes up to me and says, “I just know I could write a better book than the crap that is being published these days!” There are no bad writing days when the character tags – the ones you stick on yourself – fall off, precipitating an identity crisis, or reviewers who fail to recognize that your latest picture book has a Proustian plot simply because it’s packaged with self-adhesive jewel stickers.
I should have anticipated these setbacks. My publishing misadventures began years ago in high school when the school paper published my sonnet about the folk singer, Joan Baez. When the paper came out, I discovered the editor, a senior two years ahead of me, had altered all the pronouns.
Furious, I stopped him in the hallway.
“Why did you change all the ‘she’s’ to ‘he’s?’ ” I demanded.
“Obviously, your sonnet was about Christ.” He looked pleased with himself.
It’s true I didn’t mention Baez by name in my sonnet, but that’s no excuse for messing with my pronouns.
Like most writers, I’ve received my share of disparaging reviews, including an uncomfortably personal one from a reviewer who described the protagonist in my middle-grade novel as “extreme and poorly characterized.”
This calls to mind something my mother used to tell me.
“You go from one extreme to another!”
In other words, the poorly characterized character in my novel was a well-characterized characterization of myself.
No essay about the hazards of publishing is complete without the “R” word (I recently counted 2,570). Most writers deal regularly with rejection, but I hold a record for speed and economy. I once had five manuscripts rejected by an editor over the telephone in five minutes. That’s one rejection a minute! And if that’s not bad enough, imagine being rejected for something you didn’t even write!
“Thank you for returning the errant manuscript you received from us,” the editor wrote. “Apparently, one of your envelopes must have attached itself to the wrong manuscript.”
Rejection has a way of whirling around biting you a second time, if you’re not careful. I faced recycled rejection when my seven-year-old daughter, Annelise, walked into my office holding a piece of paper.
“Look, Mommy, I can read!” she said proudly.
“Dear Pamela,” she began, slowly sounding out the words, “We appreciate the time you have put into this manuscript; however, we have decided not to accept this submission, as it does not fit our current editorial needs.”
The broadest condemnation of my writing, though, came from my ex-husband.
“Your writing illustrates tendencies I deplore,” he said. (I wasn’t wild about his tendencies either.)
“Everything in life is a life experience,” someone at a writing conference once remarked.
It made me laugh at the time, but there is something to it. Everything in publishing is a publishing experience. And, given time, those experiences evolve into great stories.
Pamela Jane is an author of over thirty children’s books, and an essayist whose work has appeared in The NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, The NY Daily News, Writer’s Digest, The Independent, and The Writer. Pamela has also published humor in The Daily Drunk, Erma Bombeck, the Brevity Blog, The Satirist, and others.
A Very Small Writing Practice
April 10, 2023 § 14 Comments
By Carmella de los Angeles Guiol
These days, when people ask me how my writing is going, I try my best not to roll my eyes and bite their heads off. I have a two-year-old and a one-year-old, both of whom were born during the pandemic. How do you think it’s going?
But the other day it dawned on me: I do have a writing practice. A very small one, but a writing practice, nonetheless.
When I got pregnant in the fall of 2019, some friends put together a care package and sent it to me. I was delighted to find in the box: a belly band, Dear Girls by Ali Wong, nausea gummies, shea butter to slather on my growing belly, and a “Line a Day” journal. And ever since that day, I have faithfully scrawled a line into that journal.
And that, my friends, has been a large extent of my writing practice for the past three years.
At first, I felt embarrassed by this fact, but now I feel something close to pride. Yes, my life has been hectic, and no, I haven’t made much headway on my many writing projects. But the truth is, I have been writing. A line a day.
At first, it was barely a line. Postpartum days and nights blend into each other. Maybe I got a word down, or a short phrase, or a cluster of exclamation points. But as my children grow more independent, my entries have also grown. Sometimes, they cannot be contained by the drawn lines provided. I scribble in the margins. My yearning for words becomes stronger day by day, line by line.
One line in the daily diary about my baby nursing around the clock might blossom into an essay about the (sometimes brutal) physicality of motherhood. A quick quip about a disagreement with my aunt could, one day, become a novel exploring the unforgiving demands placed on mothers and daughters. A few words about my sons horsing around before bed may catapult into a children’s book celebrating siblings.
Eventually, I will break out of the Line a Day journal, and the words will flow freely on the page. Maybe one day, I’ll finish the memoir that I started when I was pregnant with my first baby. Maybe one day, I’ll rewrite that young adult novel that’s been gathering dust on my hard drive. Maybe one day, I’ll finish that book proposal that I’ve been stopping and starting for the past decade.
But for now, a line a day. It keeps me writing, putting pen to paper. Bite-sized morsels, but still, words on the page. Unbeknownst to me when I glibly wrote my first entry back in 2019, this Line A Day journal has been a little connection to my former self, the memoirist in me who is still in there, somewhere. Sleep deprived and bedraggled, but still alive.
And what better gift for a memoirist that a Line A Day journal?? It has amounted to a daily record of my life, little reminders of the tiny insignificant moments that brought me joy amidst the bewildering chaos of a pandemic and parenthood. On any given day, I can see what I’ve written on that day in previous years. Now that my second son is a toddler, I can revisit my entries from when his older brother was a newborn – my first foray into motherhood.
In the past three years, I haven’t submitted anything, edited drafts or crafted a new essay. I’ve been busy using my creativity for another creative endeavor: motherhood. And when I’m ready to return to the page and mine the past to create something meaningful, the Line A Day journal will be there, faithfully at the ready.
Carmella de los Angeles Guiol is a writer and digital health educator living in Durham, NC. She is the creator of Scroll Sanity, a newsletter and podcast exploring how to stay sane in a digital world.
Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?
March 29, 2023 § 23 Comments
By Abby Alten Schwartz
Imagine you own a property. You sketch plans for a house, consult experts, allow yourself six months to build a solid foundation and ensure you’re up for the challenge. You reach that milestone and keep going, learning new tools and discovering which tasks you have a knack for and which are more cost-effective to outsource. Then one day, you look around and realize you’re living in this home you made and it’s lovely, comfortable, and secure.
That’s how it felt to build my own business from a thought I had in mid-2000 (what if I quit this job and worked for myself?) to a major part of my identity. Originally a graphic design company, I expanded to include copywriting and marketing consultation, and sharpened my focus to hospitals and healthcare organizations. The work was gratifying and provided the steady income and flexible hours I needed raising a daughter with a demanding chronic illness.
But here’s what happens when you’ve lived in the same house for 20 years. You start watching too much HGTV, envisioning what you’d choose if you ever decided to move. You still love your current house—this is just fantasy.
For years leading up to the pandemic, I’d felt a restless creative urge, a sense there was something more I was meant to do. My gut told me there was a collaborative element to it but the rest remained elusive.
Then, in the summer of 2019, Cheryl Strayed posted on Instagram that she was teaching a memoir writing course the following spring at Kripalu Center, a five-hour drive from my home. Terrified, yet powerless to resist, I registered.
Of course we all know what happened in the spring of 2020. And while there would be no weekend workshop with Cheryl Strayed, fate stepped in to usher me onto my new writing path, quarantine-be-damned.
On the day I would have arrived at Kripalu, I discovered The Isolation Journals (TIJ), a pandemic-borne online journaling project founded by Suleika Jaoaud. I began writing daily in response to Jaoaud’s prompts and sharing my mini essays with the private Facebook group. I found my voice and realized it was time to build an addition onto my creative house.
These last three years have been transformative—Dorothy stepping into a Technicolor world. A friend from TIJ introduced me to an expansive and generous community of writers. I took online courses where I met more writers, learned to pitch editors, got my first byline and my second and my twentieth. I found a coach and started my memoir, wrote essays, satire, reported stories, prose, formed critique groups, ventured to HippoCamp.
Every day I gazed in wonder at the new structure rising from the earth around me. This was no mere addition. This was my aspirational dream home, right out of a Nancy Meyers film.
Every day I’d trudge back to my other home, knowing my fantasy house wasn’t sturdy enough to live in or sustain a family.
Then one day I thought, if I can’t live in my new house, maybe I can borrow some of the furniture and accessories and spruce up my old place. And I started integrating bits of my personal writing life with my professional one.
I added journalism to my LinkedIn profile and posted links to my bylines, explaining them as writing I did to keep my creativity sharp. I’d previously separated these halves of my identity, wary of crossing professional boundaries and revealing too much of my personal life. I also worried my clients would mistakenly think I had one foot out the door. My clients not only liked my pieces, they asked about them in meetings.
The truth is my corporate writing makes my personal writing more enjoyable. Sure, I’d love more time to devote to the latter, but because it’s not my primary source of income, I can take a more playful, curiosity-driven approach. When the stakes are lower, there’s greater freedom to aim high. The worst that can happen is I get a rejection.
Still, writing essays and memoir has unleashed in me a greater desire for authenticity and genuine connection. So, brick by brick, I’m lowering the walls dividing my two halves.
I’ve been thinking about the word integrity—a core value of mine and an ideal I try to live by. The word means more than honesty and morality. Integrity is the state of being whole and undivided.
I’m now taking further steps to bring my creative identities into better alignment and give each the attention and respect they deserve.
I’m writing a proposal for my memoir-in-progress, with the goal of landing an agent and publishing deal in 2023. I’ll continue to pitch stories that interest and excite me, including pieces about chronic illness, wellness, and mental health, informed by my expertise in healthcare communications. I’ll continue to work with hospital systems but will also develop content for major healthcare brands. And I’m preparing to launch a design service for writers, offering book cover consultation and art direction as well as creation of promotional materials.
An old client I reconnected with a few weeks ago asked me, “What kind of work do you really have fun doing?”
It’s a question I hope I never stop pondering.
Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, WIRED, Salon, The Belladonna Comedy and elsewhere. She also works as a healthcare copywriter, designer and marketing consultant and is writing a memoir titled Hypervigilant. Follow her on Twitter @abbys480, visit abbyaltenschwartz.com and subscribe to her free newsletter, Name Three Things.
Who Needs Your Words?
March 14, 2023 § 4 Comments
The joyful secret of building audience
By Allison K Williams
Memoirs sell because the writing is strong, the story engaging, and there’s an audience who wants to read this book. Agents and publishers determine the first two from your query and pages. Proving an audience exists is up to you.
Most memoirs sell with proposals. Your proposal shares the plan and purpose of your book, shows you’re organized and professional, demonstrates your writing skill, and most importantly, establishes that an audience exists and you can reach them. Before you sell the book, your proposal outlines your aspirations—who needs your words? Where are they and how can you be there? When the book is sold, your proposal guides the publisher’s PR department and helps them understand how to sell the book. If you self-publish or work with a small press, the proposal is your marketing plan.
Identifying an audience not only helps your book sell, it helps you write without being alone. Participating in the Reddit forum or industry mailing list for your topic helps determine what material is crucial and what to leave out. Guesting on podcasts and visiting support groups means practicing delivering your message effectively—which makes your writing better. After you’ve told that anecdote six times, you’ll know how to ramp up tension and where the punchline is.
Literary audiences are built on education. Your MFA cohort, fellow workshop participants, even the other writers in the webinar chat are all part of your audience. They’ll be your colleagues and your readers as you seek publication in literary venues and gain recognition, like Pushcart Prizes, Best American Essays mentions or inclusion, and acceptance at prestigious workshops and residencies.
Commercial audiences grow through mass media publication and your mailing list, enhanced by social media—because social media is where you can talk at anyone you want for free. Ideally, your commercial platform will eventually include public speaking and being recognized as an expert.
My own audience mixes literary and commercial. In 2012, I saved up to attend Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, where I met Dinty W. Moore. For five years, I spent a month each year sending one submission a day to literary venues. I’ve blogged for Brevity for ten years (and counting!) and built my social media presence by quoting my own blogs, interacting with other writers, and championing their work. Building my audience taught me about the book they needed, so I wrote it.
As you meet your audience and grow to love them, start thinking about defining them. Try this Mad Libs:
[Audience demographic] has [population]. They have [problem] caused by [experience]. My book addresses this with [help for reader]. I will reach/am connected to these readers [in Publication] or [with Action].
In the proposal that sold Seven Drafts, I summed up one audience like this:
Some beginning writers are genuinely unable to distinguish their own work from a finished book; many more lack strong critique groups, beta readers, MFAs and/or buckets of cash for workshops and professional editing…
These writers are ready to work, and need help with both a big-picture understanding of the editing process, and specific, actionable steps for revision. Feeling overwhelmed and disorganized, they want and need an encouraging guide.
And included subscription numbers for the writing magazines where I’ve published craft articles.
Is it fair that you have to do your own demographic research and write it up nicely? Is it fair that memoirists must identify an audience and start interacting with those people long before their book is finished?
Is it fair that you get to put your thoughts into words and share them with the world while others without the ability to write or desire to put themselves forward must suffer alone?
But here’s the joyful secret—you’re already building audience! You’re meeting them in the comments on this blog. You’re listening to your future blurbers on AWP panels. Enjoyed a webinar? Post a couple of quotes from it on social media and tag the teacher. Then review their book. Post the review on your social media and repost on the publication anniversary. Without stalking, gently insinuate yourself into their mental list of “people who support my work,” and they’ll be more likely to support yours.
Building an audience fervent and large enough to support publication is time-consuming. Identifying specific groups who need your words makes it faster. Your other option is to write like a National Book Award winner. Which of these takes the least time and effort depends on the author.
Either way, build your writing career on thoughtful, compelling writing that tells stories your audience desperately needs to hear. Stories you know they need, because you talked to them. As Sean Thomas Dougherty writes:
Because right now there is someone
Out there with
a wound in the exact shape
of your words.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Writing your memoir proposal? Get it done in a weekend, with professional guidance and without the agony. April 1-2, replay available. Find out more about Memoir Proposal Bootcamp here.