November 30, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Michele Genest
My sister-in-law is just starting to think about submitting stories to magazines. When we were chatting about our writing the other day I told her I’d been collecting rejection letters lately, and quoted John Haggerty, founding editor of Forge Literary Magazine, who said rejection was the default state of the writer.
Barb said, “The default state! If that’s the default state, isn’t there another word we could use? Something more positive than ‘rejection’?”
I thought back to the trek around the Dhaulagiri Massif in Nepal my husband and I had undertaken a few years ago.
“How about ‘acclimatization’?”
Barb said, “Explain.”
On Day Eleven we reached Italian Camp, about 12,000 feet above sea level, and were five days away from climbing to French Pass; at 17,500 feet, our highest pass. At breakfast on Day Twelve, Scott, an informal leader in our small group, announced that in consultation with our guides, he was renaming our “rest” days. We would now be calling them “acclimatization” days.
“In other words,” he said, “We will not rest today. Today we will hike up to 13,000 feet, to acclimatize for tomorrow, when we will reach nearly 14,000 feet.” So we abandoned our plans for washing socks, reading, snoozing in the sun and drinking tea, and set off on our acclimatization climb.
For the first time on this trek, air was hard to get. Inhales were frequent and deep, exhales hurried, to get to the next inhale. Scott said it might be a good idea to push it, go a little faster, expand our lungs. And so we pushed it, moved a little faster, breathed a little harder. And it felt like pushing, pushing, against a block of resistance with our chests.
We reached a stony plateau, the end of our hike, and stretched out on the ground. Our guide Devi attached bright new prayer flags to a faded, tattered sling of flags strung between two ancient cairns. Choughs flew at eye level up the valley, across the flanks of Dhaulagiri peaks One, Two and Three, their black backs shining in the sun.
In a small hollow we found wild rosehips, as big as apples.
We rested for a while in the thin, clear air, and turned to go back down.
The next day we climbed to 14,000 feet, one foot after another, breathing carefully, and reached Japanese camp in good time and in good shape.
When I finished the story, Barb said, “Yes!
We decided: we would rename “rejection” letters. They would now become “acclimatization” letters—not a rejection, just a moment to pause, do some squats, hoist our knapsacks onto our backs, get back on the path, expand our lungs, and climb to the next height.
There, we will hang prayer flags.
We will watch choughs fly at eye level, shining in the sun.
We will find rosehips, as big as apples.
Michele Genest lives and writes in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Her work has been published in Geist Magazine and national newspapers. She is co-editor of two anthologies of Yukon writing, Urban Coyote and Urban Coyote New Territory. She is currently writing a memoir set on a Greek island and in Toronto in the 1980s. Find Michele at borealgourmet.com.
November 18, 2020 § 13 Comments
By Sweta Srivastava Vikram
It’s been raining nonstop in NYC as I write this essay. I am a sunshine-loving woman and the relentless downpour (We have had a wet week) dries up my creative juices. It makes me unnecessarily mellow and puts out my creative fire. I like being able to go for a walk in the woods or stroll in the park close to home to tap into my inner voice and connect with the stories that matter.
Denial: Being homebound these past few days, I said to my husband, “You sure we weren’t transported to London one night while we were asleep?” Nothing seems strange or impossible in 2020. Because I remember autumn as a crisp and bright season in NYC, not grey and wet like the weather across the pond that our London friends and family complain about. Imagine what winter will be like?
Acceptance: Once I let the rant out of my system, I ordered a few brightening and heating lamps for our apartment. Because either you change your situation (which I can’t at this time) or your attitude around it. 2020 has taught us all that so much of our survival and sanity is dependent on our mindset. We are stuck in the pandemic for a long haul…sometimes, with awful weather. We can either accept it with grace or fight a battle with no outcome in sight.
Innovation: I can’t write on the couch. I can’t work on the floor. So, I carved out an intimate corner for my creative work, which is well-lit and has a space heater for my feet to stay warm. It also has close access to the kitchen—literally five seconds—for the numerous cups of chai I need. I, for one, have not returned to working from coffee shops or a co-working space. I don’t see writing residencies or writing retreats in my near future. I live in a NYC apartment, so the space is not something you will read about in an architectural magazine. But I love that it’s all mine for my writing. In this nook, I don’t work my day job. None of my virtual speaking engagements or client coaching happen in my writing space. No one else is allowed to sit in my writing chair. I show up here every day with gratitude in my heart.
Meaningfulness: I view this pandemic as an opportunity to connect with our individual selves and society-at-large. It’s an unintended but profound mindfulness practice. When the days get shorter and colder and our ability to go out and see people (even if from a distance) becomes reduced, writers can rely on the company of their words. While 2020 has been brutal and unpreceded, it’s given us writers a lot of material to work with. If you feel too close to it, the timing seems uncomfortable, and it makes you anxious, don’t start to write. The brain is still collecting information. It’s percolating, fermenting, and processing. These are all vital limbs of the writing process.
Association: I also remind myself that writing is like yoga asanas and meditation—you show up daily with dedication without any attachment to the outcome. Some days will be prolific; other days, will be null. But show up because having a habit and purpose can help us feel connected. Be fine with all days not being the same. Be okay with not hammering yourself to produce a daily quota of words. Befriend writing on a deeper level. Sit with the discomfort but don’t pressure yourself to churn out pages after pages. Being a writer doesn’t just mean tapping away at the keyboard or scribbling in your journal all day. All these experiences will stay with you. When the time is right, you will write. This approach ultimately reassures me that I will always be a writer (whether I am writing a book or being creative with a social media post), so it eliminates any fear associated with my identity as a writer and encourages me to show up to writing daily.
I interviewed three women writers who live in different countries—Canada, United Kingdom, and the United States—to get their input on how we, the writers, can make the most of a pandemic winter….no matter which place we call home.
London-based Sejal Sehmi, IT consultant and UK editor of Brown Girl Magazine, said, “Being in the midst of the pandemic especially in the winter is sure to arouse a lot of anxiety and uncertainty – much as what I myself have suffered during the peak of the lockdown. But it’s also a time that these fears can also give way to suppressed emotions which sometimes can only be articulated in words. Make it a point, at some time in the day, to keep a regular routine of writing something, anything, even if it’s just a Dear Diary moment. Early mornings, whilst I appreciate it is more challenging because of the shorter days to come, I feel is the best time to jot anything that comes to mind down on paper/journal. Once this becomes a routine, your creative juices in its own time will naturally build something you will enjoy reading back on.”
Sehmi further suggested something I can’t live without either: “Meditation can play an integral part to having a clear focused head and be mindful of looking for creativity even within the four walls we are surrounded by. We often spend so long seeking inspiration from the outside world and forget how close to home it actually is. This is the time, more than ever to use our words to self-heal and self-comfort.”
Another poignant suggestion comes from Seattle-based Joyce Yarrow, author of Zahara and the Lost Books of Light (Adelaide Books, NY/Lisbon). “When I think about being a house-bound writer during this pandemic, what comes to mind are the many books written by authors while serving time in prison. Although the majority of these ‘prisoner-authors’ have little in common with me—I am not a convicted thug, thief, kidnapper and rapist like Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur—there are some I greatly admire, such as Nelson Mandela (Conversations with Myself) and Piper Kerman (Orange is the New Black). The bottom line is that I’ve always admired people who are able to transcend their surroundings and create a safe place in which to be creative. Whether we confine ourselves willingly or are sequestered by circumstance, developing the ability to visualize and create worlds that we literally wish into being is a gift to be treasured. And by nurturing our gratitude for this gift, we can not only survive—we can thrive.”
Anita Kushwaha, author of Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters, Harper Avenue, said, “When we went into lockdown here in Ottawa back in March, like so many of us, my creativity took a nosedive. I couldn’t focus for long enough to write or even read. After a while, though, writing became my haven from the uncertainty of the world. At first, things moved slowly. But in time, the pace picked up and I even managed to complete a new manuscript over the span of the next five months. (Fast for me.) Now that we’re in the second wave of the pandemic, writing has once again become a kind of sanctuary for me, a place where I can go and have at least some control over what happens. My one suggestion? Observe and embrace the changes in your creative process, find new ways that work for you, and cut yourself some slack if you aren’t meeting your own expectations in terms of output. We’re all living through something incredibly challenging at the moment. Good luck and keep going!”
While we are ALL in the pandemic together, we are still individuals with our own strengths and struggles and hesitations. Figure out what works for you and your creative process this winter.
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ~ Octavia E. Butler
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi and certified Ayurveda health coach, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe. She also teaches yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as well incarcerated men and women. Find her on: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
October 8, 2020 § 22 Comments
Perhaps your manuscript is as good as you can make it…but you’d like a second opinion. Or maybe you know something isn’t quite clicking…but you’re not sure what. Maybe you’ve heard a fellow writer say, “My editor pointed out issue X and everything fell into place! I still have a lot of work to do, but I know where I’m going.” Maybe you’re getting rejections and you don’t know why your book isn’t landing with agents or publishers.
Most authors reach a draft where they can’t improve their manuscript further without high-level outside input. More thorough or more sophisticated critique than even your best writer friends have time to give. It’s time to call in a big favor…or spend money.
If your literary citizenship has included reading for friends and acquaintances, promoting and reviewing their books, and staying in touch with workshop colleagues and teachers, you may have a free or low-cost reader available. A writer you trust, whose work you believe is more polished than yours. Maybe the classmate who gave the best feedback to everyone else. Someone who doesn’t love everything you write—praise is not useful at this time.
Ask in a way that makes it easy to say no, and that suggests you’re prepared to compensate them appropriately for their expertise.
I don’t know what your schedule is like right now, but do you do manuscript reads? And if so, do you have a regular rate?
They might say, “I’d love to read your work, just send it along,” in which case you send a heartfelt thank-you note and review everything they ever write in as many online locations as you can. Or they’ll quote a price and you can decide if they’re within your budget.
A free or low-cost reader needs your request for feedback to be as specific as possible. You might ask 5-10 questions like, “Does the main character’s emotional journey pay off at the end?” or “Can you please highlight things you think I can cut?”
High-level critique also comes from professional editors. A good editor will help you make your book the best you can write, and much readier for querying, submissions or self-publishing. Unlike your friend doing you a favor, you’ll have a specific due date and a clear scope of work.
If you’ve explored hiring a professional editor, you may have noticed one key element: Good editors are EXPENSIVE. House payment-expensive. International airline ticket-expensive. Sometimes even refundable business class-expensive. Editing is skilled, high-level work that should dramatically increase the sellability of your book, and it costs accordingly.
Editors may bill a set project fee, hourly (with an estimate), or per-word. Some charge per page, but a “standard” page is 250 words so that’s functionally per-word. These prices are usually based on how much time your manuscript needs. Send the cleanest manuscript you can. Pages with fewer typos and grammatical errors take less time; you’ll also get more bang for your buck if the editor spends her time on issues you couldn’t see or fix yourself.
You can also save money on editing by reducing your word count. The more unnecessary words you remove on your own, the less a full edit will cost. Here’s how to slim down your story without losing what’s important:
1) Many memoirs (and novels!) start too late. Send pages 50-75 to someone who hasn’t read the book. Ask what they know about the story and the narrator. Cut those details out of the first 50 pages. Ask what they wish they knew. See if you can move those things out of the first 50 pages and put them in later, but smaller. I’ve had several editorial clients who cut their first 50 pages because the story hadn’t started yet. Especially if it was a big chunk of family history.
2) Send only the first 25 pages (now possibly your revised pages 50-75) for professional editing. Problems at the beginning are almost certainly problems through the whole book. Ask for a list of what to fix, then address those issues in the rest of the book before sending off your entire manuscript. If your memoir is over 85K words, ask specifically about reducing length. (If your manuscript is under 60K, ask what you’re missing that needs to be added in.)
3) Do a Word Cloud (I like Wordle) to see overused words. Remove/substitute as needed.
4) Search for that, very, really, beginning to/began to, starting to/started to, and continued and take out half to two-thirds of each.
Words add up. Developmental edit on an 85K manuscript at 4 cents/word? $3400. Cut 4000 words of extra subplot, 4800 words of excess description and 200 appearances of very and really? You just saved $400.
Before committing to working with a professional or other high-level reader, do as much as you can alone. Join a writing group, trade manuscripts with a writer buddy. Before you send your pages or manuscript, read through one more time. Knowing that feedback is imminent, more issues will stick out. It’s possible you’ll solve your own problem. It’s also possible you’ll still need an edit.
Editing is not a magic cure. Your book still may be unpublishable. Your writing may not be ready. But a good editor will not just polish this book—her feedback will teach you more about writing, and your next book will start at a higher level of craft.
And if what you’re struggling with is structure? Check out my webinar October 21st: Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s only $25—no matter what your word count is.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. October 21st, she’ll be teaching how to structure a memoir to engage readers, agents and publishers. What’s an “inciting incident” or a “climax” when you’re looking at real life? How to decide what events belong in your book? Suitable for those with an idea, a draft, or a terrifying pile of material, you’ll discover how to tell the right story about the story you need to tell. Sign up here.
October 2, 2020 § 11 Comments
By Margaret Moore
The book is not done yet because there is a certain process that goes into successfully crafting a book, and the process, which I intend to follow, maintains that I must produce several drafts, moving my memoir from a really rough, unfocused sketch of a portion of my life to a pointed, purposeful plot that demonstrates a very specific idea about life, and, to achieve this, I must create outlines with proposed content, angles, and approaches, and then I must write drafts based on those outlines, and there are days where I open the draft I wrote the previous day only to realize that the narrative does not work from a craft standpoint, so I cut paragraphs and even entire pages as I hold my breath and try to remember that I can always go back to it if whatever I write in its place doesn’t work, and then I work up new drafts, and I eventually come to be enthralled with one or perhaps a few of those drafts and I work on fine-tuning and polishing those pages, and then I get to the point of satisfaction with them, so I submit them to my faculty mentors, fellow students, and writer friends, and they give me in-depth feedback on what could be clearer, elaborated on, and added to make the piece stronger, and that inspires me to make more outlines and new versions of the piece, and then the process repeats a few times as I develop new pages and revisions, and, by the way, I only just started my MFA in Creative Writing and this is really the first time ever that I have been able to work on writing and the memoir full-time without having other disciplines to attend to, and I’m finally feeling like I’m getting somewhere serious with it, and, hopefully, in about two years, I will have a manuscript that I can submit to gurus in editing and publishing, but then I will have to take their suggestions into consideration and go through more rounds of revisions until it is publication-ready, and, I have not looked too far into this stage yet—I’m taking it one step at a time—but I expect that I will work with my publishers to proof galleys to make sure the memoir looks the way it should before it goes to print, and there might be marketing details to attend to, and whatever else, and then the book will eventually be released, and, yes, this is an extremely long process—definitely lengthier than I expect it to be for future books simply because this is my first book—but I assure you, it has been tried and proven effective by many established authors and, in the end, you will have a high-quality book authored by me in your hands.
Margaret Moore graduated Fairfield University Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing in May of 2020. Her work has appeared in Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy and Independent Catholic News among other publications. She is now working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University.
September 7, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Josh Sippie
Writing conferences can be kind of daunting. I spent about half a decade going to various conferences across the Eastern seaboard as an eager attendee, relishing my 2.5 minutes of facetime with editors and agents, and awkwardly trying to start conversations with writers because we had one thing for sure in common—we were both writers. Whether it was a conference for book-length projects or just slinging essays about tattoos or poor choices made as a teenager, I felt like my success as a writer would be won or lost in the hallowed halls of a generic hotel-turned-conference-space.
But it got to the point when I started to feel like they just weren’t doing it anymore. Those 2.5 minutes didn’t amount to success, and it seemed like they were all blending together into the same experiences. Fortunately, I found myself eventually in a position to make a difference. As the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers, I wanted to make a conference that could make a difference. Only I wasn’t exactly sure how, only that I knew what I wanted from a conference, and assumed others would want the same.
So I reached out to the people that attract writers to conferences—agents and editors. And I asked them what they would want to see from a conference. My logic was if we could make the “talent” happy, we could make the attendees happy as well. After all, you can only see so many panels before they start to repeat. I know I’m not alone when I say that I attended conferences with the hopes of making a connection to further my writing endeavors.
Their response surprised me—they hated conferences. Many saw them as a “rite of passage” for newer agents and editors, to get their feet wet in the industry. They highlighted any number of things that writing conferences did that drove them crazy and begging for the end of the day. So I asked them what would make that different, what would get them excited about a conference.
That got a better response. They didn’t want quick pitches, they wanted to educate. They wanted quality projects. They also wanted a decent lunch break.
Thus, the Gotham Writers Conference was born. A conference for book-length projects of nonfiction and fiction alike. Rather than speed dating 10 agents hoping to strike gold, we’re giving writers the chance to make a genuine connection. And, in turn, that allows us to line up some of the best agents in the business. We divide writers into “pitching roundtables” where they spend four hours with up to eight other writers in their genre, as well as two top agents in that genre. In that four hours, everyone will go over their first few pages and query letter or nonfiction book proposal. If it sparks a connection—great. We had writers land their agent in our first ever conference last year. But the goal here is to put writers in a better place after the conference so that they are better equipped to find an agent on their own.
With the individualized attention, writers leave their table knowing how to move themselves forward with their writing career, because there isn’t always going to be a conference there… as we are unfortunately learning in the times of COVID.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Writer Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. When not writing, he can be found wondering why he isn’t writing. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.
July 22, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Vicki Lindner
In December of last year, I finished my ‘60s memoir, Baby, It’s You. (I won’t admit how long “finishing” took.) Then I placed the 300-page manuscript in a black plastic box and buried it in my walnut cabinet. Here, I thought, Baby could rest like a tulip bulb waiting to bloom —for three months.
When Alan, a writer friend, asked how “Baby” was going, (hesitantly, as if inquiring how many millimetres a melting glacier has shrunk), I said, “It’s done.”
“Wow,” Alan said, “Congratulations! Are you sending it out?” And I confessed I wasn’t, not yet. I’d come to understand that I sent my stuff to likely prospects all too soon, and only after rejections popped into my inbox, realized that the manuscript needed work—from cutting and shaping to re-imagining. And if that was true of an essay or short story it would likely be truer for the monster snoozing in the black box. Despite compulsive revisions, I told Alan, “Baby” was too vast for my limited literary vision to take in just yet.
Alan said that failure to “see” new work applied to his process too. As it does, I think, to many writers. We finish, so full of hubris, trepidation, even boredom, in such a hurry to “succeed” or to “win” that we gulp down encouraging feedback from other writers and forget the endurance that writing, the toughest extreme sport, demands. “Patient sustained labor,” Vivian Gornick called it.
That was one truth, but I faced another, more psychological: I’d been nurturing “Baby” so long that to throw the infant to sharp-toothed critics in cold publishing waters seemed like diving naked into the Arctic Ocean myself. And I admit, writing the memoir had transported me back to the ‘60s, a transformative era, more rewarding than the current one, enmeshed as it is in this global pandemic.
So I called Melissa, a wise Montana poet and essayist. She, too, asked about my memoir. I explained that “Baby” was hibernating like a Grizzly in winter. Melissa loves bears, but she didn’t exclaim, as Alan did, “Good idea.” Then I raised a painful topic—the time I refused to resubmit my short story collection to a contest, in which it had been a finalist, after the judge strongly suggested I should, assuring me that the book didn’t need more and better stories as I insisted. (No, I didn’t rush to the psychoanalyst Junot Diaz recommends for all writers.) And now, after years of kicking myself for not exploring my fear of rejection, I asked Melissa, “Am I doing what I did with the contest by putting my memoir down for a long winter’s nap?”
“YES,” she answered without missing a beat.
But though I did self-destruct by not resubmitting the story collection, I still thought I should give my memoir time to ferment. Nobody was clamoring to publish it in a pandemic. And it focused on a subject that could benefit from additional thought—a taboo relationship, which helped the teenaged girl I was in the memoir to jettison the ‘50s stifling script. Plus an agent had told me what I already knew: My first chapter sucked.
After revision I’d called that chapter “good,” but needed time and space to be sure. Another question: Had I figured out what my father—a munitions expert who’d conceptualized weapons systems for the Vietnam War—was doing in this work? After three months of thinking instead of pretending to think by re-writing compulsively, I knew.
But back to “Baby”, germinating in the cabinet. While waiting for the proverbial tulip to bloom, I wrote shorter works, a new short story, an essay, and my morning prompts — “comments” to The New York Times. And I kept reading relevant books and stuffing notes in the black box.
Then came the early spring day I’d vowed to awaken “Baby” from torpor. I duly extracted the closeted box, and forbidding myself swings between depression and elation, pencil-edited the manuscript. I’d been right to wait. How had the best chapters turned into the worst ones? With refreshed vision I saw countless passages that would shine after tightening, or in some cases, loosening; I empowered verbs and batted away pesky commas. Most important, I judiciously developed essential ideas and remodeled misshapen sentences. Then I began typing my handwritten edits into the computer, seeing more opportunities for betterment. (But when I caught myself changing new words back to the old ones I knew it was time to stop.) The governor’s stay-at-home orders, I guiltily admit, proved a gift, though some days I stared into space, immobilized by anxious inertia. Ultimately my apartment lockdown revealed that I needed to let go of the past as who could say how long my present would last.
Now I’m about to mail the manuscript to a few friends who’ve agreed to read it. Then I will write a query, the hardest part.
And when “Shelter-at-Home” turned to “Safer-at-Home,” I visited Tess, my new Jungian shrink.
Vicki Lindner writes memoir, personal essays, and short fiction in Denver, Colorado, where she also teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her essays have been published by Gastronomica, American Literary Review, In Short: An Anthology of Brief Nonfiction, Seneca Review, Shadowboxmagazine.org, New Writing, Western Humanities Review, and others She has won two Wyoming Fellowships for Creative Nonfiction, a National Endowment for the Arts for fiction, and two New York State fellowships, also for fiction.