Turning Your Obsession Into A Book

February 21, 2023 § Leave a comment

By L.L. Kirchner

As you may’ve guessed from the title, Maria Teresa Hart’s DOLL (Bloomsbury, November 2022) is about dolls. How did Hart—whom I knew to be a writer of sharp, witty essays about life and travel—come to write such a thing? And get it published?

Hart’s book was part of Bloomsbury’s series Object Lessons, online essays and books that delve deeply into the stories behind everyday objects. Hart describes the union as “a dream come true.”

“I went in un-agented,” she says. “And I didn’t need a platform.”

Translation: she didn’t need to devote thousands of hours to whipping up enthusiasm among potential readers. Instead, Hart tapped into the series’ existing audience, initially by pitching essays to the generic email she found online. “One of the things I found refreshing [about writing Object Lessons essays] was that they didn’t have to be pegged to anything timely.” Her first piece was about hair dryers, her second about bidets. “When I finished those essays, I was done. They were not books.”

But Hart still wanted to write a full-length work that would uncover some “hidden history of femininity.” Obvious as the topic of dolls might seem in retrospect, Hart says there was no “aha moment.” She’d been studying dolls since her first visit to the Smithsonian at eight, where the displays conveyed something undeniable—dolls had real value. “I started checking books out of the library and scanning classified ads for dolls to buy.”

I wondered if that was a challenging marketplace for a young Latina to enter, but Hart didn’t find it to be. “Any hobbies where you need money at the entry level is going to have a barrier of class to it. But even with ten bucks you can buy a doll at Walmart. And some of the things that are considered disposable and cheap are the things that become rarefied later. Like popular freebies. They become incredible collector’s items.”

Naturally, I had to ask her about Barbie.

“Barbie is a popular punching bag for most feminists. She has these oppressive beauty standards that I can’t uphold. But my thinking on Barbie has evolved.”

Hart finds something to celebrate in the fact that Barbie can exemplify hyper-femininity. To downplay that quality, Hart suggests, is to treat femininity as insignificant. “I’ll be first in line for tickets to the Barbie movie, because I believe in celebrating femininity, in taking it seriously and finding joy in it.”

In her book, dolls are introduced by type rather than chronology — Barbies, porcelain dolls, American Girl dolls, celebrity dolls, and digital dolls, or avatars. What follows are  the “hidden histories.” For instance, did you know that Mattel’s founder Ruth Handler was inspired by the 1950s German novelty doll Bild-Lilli, “a scrappy escort using her figure and her fast wit to get by”?

Each type of doll is introduced with a short essay and accompanied by an illustration to create a diorama. Hart says that in this way, “the book became two objects, both a book and a paper doll.” The “Play Dates”, as Hart calls these introductions, describe the doll’s world and imagines their context. In Play Date #4, which introduces the section How to Live Forever: The Celebrity Doll, Hart writes, “Not to worry, our lady isn’t going to work in some factory, school, or secretarial pool. We’re playing, not punching the clock. Her job has to be fun—the most fun imaginable. A job that requires oodles of beautiful gowns, a full calendar of grand events, and international attention.”

“What toy companies try and convince us is that dolls have modern values,” Hart tells me. “But they don’t uphold today’s core values.” Given that the book was part of a series, I wondered if the Play Date concept was her own.

“The Play Dates idea came to me in the shower after the book was done. Thankfully, the editors encouraged me.” She laughs. “My editor’s note was ‘be more extra.’ And I was like, no problem.”

Hart’s passion for dolls shines through the pages, though she doesn’t shy away from critique. Of a visit to the American Girl Doll flagship store in Manhattan, Hart writes, “I see American Girl Doll solidifying its own unimpeachable sovereignty…. All I can hope is that as we build this history, we avoid constructing another Monticello—a monolith to white, individualistic values—and we knock a sledgehammer into the door frame, so it’s wide enough for all girls to enter.”

When it comes to mining your world for book ideas, mining your particular obsessions is a strong choice. Not only does it mean diving deeper into something you already care about, but that zeal conveys to the reader as well. Going into this book I had no interest in dolls. But page after page, I kept turning. Between the fascinating facts she uncovered about the women behind the industry and her observations about how dolls are emotional vectors—simultaneously objects of scorn and adoration—was revelatory and relatable. I can only hope my next book generates the same kind of enthusiasm.


L.L. Kirchner is the author of the forthcoming memoir Blissful Thinking: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution (Motina Books, 9/23). She’s writing a historical fiction novel about her current obsession, Florida Girls, A Novel. More at her website.

5 Reasons an Agent Might Say No (and How to Get to Yes)

February 13, 2023 § 1 Comment

3 tips to get your words into the world.

by Katie Bannon

Rejection is an unfortunate, but inevitable, part of the querying process. Agents receive thousands of queries a year and have to pass on the vast majority of them. In fact, many memoirists end up querying 50-100 agents before getting a “yes.” But the odds of catching an agent’s attention increases when you understand what they’re looking for, and what might make them pass. 

The querying process 101:

1) Send a query letter via email or an agency form. Be sure to check the submission details on the agency’s website—while most will ask for a query letter and perhaps a few pages, others want additional materials, such as a synopsis or book proposal. 

2)  If an agent is interested, they’ll ask for more pages, and potentially the full manuscript. If not, they’ll respond with a pass, usually something generic like, “I didn’t connect with this.” or “This isn’t a good fit for me.” Very few agents provide personalized feedback. Many agents will not respond at all, which means “no.” 

3) After seeing the full manuscript and/or proposal, the agent either says “no thanks” or asks for a phone call. Some agents will provide feedback as to why it didn’t work for them, although, frustratingly, some will send generic rejections. If an agent loves what they see, they’ll set up a phone call with you—a very good sign! 

4) Before that call, you’ll want to make sure you have questions prepared so you can decide if the agent is a good match for you. Just like dating, finding an agent is a two-way street – you should be as picky about your agent as they are about you!

Why might an agent say no?

  1. They don’t know how to market it. For instance, you’ve written a highly academic memoir and the agent isn’t connected with academic publishers to pitch the project. Or they believe the story isn’t timely or relevant enough to compete in the marketplace. 
  1. There isn’t a clear audience. That might be due to a niche topic or a lack of author platform, raising concerns about the book having a broad enough readership. Remember, the agent has to convince the publisher that people want to buy this book.
  1. The story doesn’t feel “unique” or compelling enough. The memoir market is fairly saturated. If your story comes across as generic and/or similar to existing memoirs, it may lack dramatic tension in the manuscript itself, or you haven’t articulated your distinctive angle/approach in the query. 
  1. The writing isn’t ready. The quality of the writing is a key factor. If an agent feels the writing is subpar in the query or the manuscript, they’ll question whether the author can pull off a high-quality final product. 
  1. Red flags. Coming across as disrespectful or difficult in your email exchanges or “the call,” can turn off an agent. Keep in mind that the agent is working for free until your book sells—they want someone easy to work with, who will be worth their time. It’s completely appropriate to ask questions and follow up with agents in a respectful way, but do your research on professional norms to avoid crossing a line.

How can I make an agent say yes?

  • Perfect your pitch. Make sure your query letter is as strong as possible before widely querying agents. For tips on writing a strong query letter, check out this article.
  • Build your platform. Which does not mean you have to be a “famous” person or have thousands of social media followers! Ramping up your following helps prove to agents and publishers that there is an audience for your book. That might mean joining communities of your future readers (for instance, going to foodie conferences if you’re writing a culinary memoir), or publishing shorter pieces in literary and/or commercial outlets. For more on platform, click here.  
  • Revise your manuscript. Be sure you’ve revised your manuscript thoroughly and received extensive feedback—this could mean hiring beta readers or a developmental editor, or participating in a writing workshop. The greatest chance you have of finding an agent is producing the very best manuscript possible.


Need more guidance on how to polish your manuscript and land an agent? Join Katie Bannon and CRAFT TALKS for Roadmap to Revision: Make Your Memoir Agent-Ready, 2PM February 15.

Katie Bannon is a writer, editor, and educator whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, ELLE Magazine, NPR, Narratively, and more. Her memoir manuscript was a finalist for the Permafrost Nonfiction Book Prize. A graduate of GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator, she holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Emerson College. She is a developmental editor who loves working with nonfiction writers to find the “story” behind the “situation” of their memoirs and essays. She teaches at GrubStreet and lives in the Boston area.

Starting Your Own Retreat: How Hard Can It Be?

January 24, 2023 § 14 Comments

I guess that guest didn’t hate me after all.

By Allison K Williams

Writers often thrive in new places—residencies and retreats that allow us to expand our ideas and make big progress outside the demands of daily life. But residencies are often competitive and retreats expensive. After eyeing promising opportunities that may be distant, outside your childcare capacity, or require three references (on paper! In the mail!) you might ask, Should I just lead my own retreat? How hard can it be? You’d get to pick convenient dates, cover your own travel, maybe even profit.

After leading sell-out retreats online and off, I can say it’s hard the first time, and new challenges arise from new locations and types of event. But repeat events become a checklist of specific tasks I know I can accomplish. Whether in Tuscany or onboard the Queen Mary 2, I’m going to teach how to finish books and write better, addressing the experience level and needs of every writer present. Most new challenges are logistical.

Going virtual? The new challenge is “make it feel like a real retreat,” and meeting it means gift boxes, responsiveness outside retreat hours, and clear guidelines for participants to plan their time.

New venue in Costa Rica? “Communicate serious dietary needs to the on-site chef in my very weak Spanish.” Hello, Google Translate and a poster of guest pictures clearly marked Vegana, Sin Gluten, and Sin Alcohol.

New itinerary in Portugal? “Schedule tour bus and trains.” Doable with a TaskRabbit helper in Porto, a guide in Coimbra, and the national train system website.

Retreat leadership has evolved from hoping I’d break even and enjoy the experience, into a regular income. It’s truly amazing to nurture artistic growth and exploration in writers who happily contribute to my livelihood. Often, I’m lucky to have Brevity’s editor in chief Dinty W. Moore as co-teacher, which means not only sharing the emotional load but learning new elements of writing myself, in the classes he leads.

Could you create a retreat?

Yes! Even if you start small, perhaps an AirBnB weekend with one writing friend, asserting time for the joy of writing feels great.

But should you create a retreat/workshop/event that other writers pay you for?

Yes, if you keep two main principles in mind.

1) Find the right audience. It’s much easier to market to a specific, defined participant you want to serve. When I created Rebirth Your Book, most retreats didn’t focus on whole-book work. When Dinty and I created our Virtual Intensives, most writing workshops didn’t offer an affordable week focused on one topic.

Are you drawn to help authors fill in the gaps to make their book publishable, or generate new material? Do you want to only offer writing, or explore a new culture, a complementary artistic process, or yoga? Got a great location you want to share, or are you more comfortable over Zoom? As you define your offering, narrow your audience. Instead of “anyone who has a week off and wants to go to Provence,” identify an immediate, pressing problem you will help your guests solve. Market your retreat to people who have that problem badly enough to make time, find the cash, and get there. Be ready to deliver 100%—after their time with you, their problem should be solved.

2) Remember that you aren’t a participant. Retreats are rarely “fun” for the leader. They’re often joyful, meaningful, and profitable, but come with daily, constant responsibility. Having a great time on a mountain hike? Make sure you’ve spent a few minutes walking and talking beside each guest. Check in with the guy who was working through a new idea after dinner—how does he feel about it this morning? Is the lady who needed to reach her family for an emergency able to focus on her writing or does she need some personal time?

Retreats demand rigid flexibility. You must create a strong frame within which absolutely anything might happen. Where you’re truly open to accommodating what each guest needs, even if what they need isn’t what you planned. My first-ever retreat, one writer didn’t want to stay in the venue after all, instead commuting from a hotel and eating on her own. I tamped down my fears and made myself available for porch talks and reading pages on her schedule. She later thanked me for “supporting the retreat she needed to have.”

At another retreat, a writer outlined ideas, but didn’t write much at all. I worried he secretly hated me, was sorry he’d paid me, had only tagged along to be with his friend. But two years later, he booked another retreat, so I guess it didn’t suck—and it’ll be my job again to support the retreat he needs to have.

Sharing what you love in a fabulous location with happy guests is truly marvelous. Taking home a paycheck (and a bit of paid vacation) is the icing on top. With planning, confidence, and clear expectations, you can make great retreats happen—whether it’s just you and a friend, or a fellowship of inspired, productive writers. Whether you break even or make bank, our true profit comes from experience. Our true leadership is taking someone’s hand and asking, “What do you see? Show it to me.”


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager, and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Her retreats take place around the world and online, and she’s offering a webinar about leading your own sell-out retreats (and making a real income from meaningful events) Feb 4th. Find out more/register here.

Flash Lyric Essay About a Faculty Meeting on Artificial Intelligence in Student Writing at Which Professors Become Dejected and Lament the State of the World

January 12, 2023 § 6 Comments

By Yelizaveta P. Renfro

The history professor yells “Shit!” when he sees an AI-generated sentence, and “Show us the devil!” when the presenters offer to share a whole AI-written essay, and finally, “I’m going to retire!” The medievalist retorts, “I can’t retire for twenty-three years,” and then talks about the terrifying prospect of grading essays written by machines. Then someone else quips that with machine scoring of essays, one machine might be writing and another machine might be grading—lonely robot talking to lonely robot. “Writing is supposed to be one mind communicating to another mind,” laments the communications professor, who is also close to retirement. But what is a mind, anyway? And what is writing, except capturing and rearranging words? Isn’t all of expression mimicry?

The presenters tell us to test a writing assignment in one of the free AI playgrounds, so I type flash lyric essay about a faculty meeting on artificial intelligence in student writing at which professors become dejected and lament the state of the world, and within seconds, AI has written a five-paragraph essay titled Faculty Meeting on Artificial Intelligence: A Flash Lyric Essay, except it isn’t a lyric essay at all. From the time of Aristotle, philosophers have been worried about how humans compare to machines, AI tells me. The government is investing billions into AI research to benefit national security.

At another AI playground, I get a more disquieting result. What have we become? Has technology created its own monster? Where is the humanity? These are a few questions that I think are asked every day. They are asked by our students. They are asked by our leaders. They are asked by ourselves. The students are the most innocent ones of all. I am not afraid to admit that I am among them. To be quite frank I have even been one of them. But I don’t think the problem lies with students. I think it lies with us.

Who is this first-person narrator? In the next paragraph, he tells me:

 I am a faculty member of a liberal arts college. Recently I was asked to write a poem about the subject of artificial intelligence and this is what I wrote.

Artificial Intelligence: The Machine in the Sky

By Joseph M. Martin, Professor of English

In every way, it’s bigger than me

It’s far superior to me

I am just a man

It’s greater than me

It’s superior to me

I am just a

The text cuts off, but clicking the “more” button produces additional lines:

I am just a man

It’s bigger than me

It’s far superior to me

It has much more going for it

It has a great deal more going for it

Much more, much more than me

It’s bigger than

Clicking “more” generates more poem—the same inane lines, with slight variations. AI is savvy enough to create a professor persona, to capture something of the tenor of lyric nonfiction, and yet—poor Professor Martin has hit a wall, reaching the outermost edges of what he knows to say. Still, I keep clicking “more,” until finally, he can only repeat the same line over and over, hundreds of times, like a monomaniac. I scroll for what seems like miles.

It’s far superior to me

It’s far superior to me

It’s far superior to me

It’s far superior to me

The presenters have follow-up questions. How effective is the writing that was generated? Would I be able to tell it was written by AI? How would I grade it? I suddenly imagine Professor Martin enrolling in my introductory creative writing class, a tweed-coated mannequin with a pull-string on his back. I am just a man, he says, when I pull the string. It’s far superior to me. It’s far superior to me. And then I try to coax new, original thoughts out of poor Professor Martin, but he is a Chatty Kathy with only half a dozen pre-recorded phrases. 

The medievalist is somewhat relieved to discover the assignment she fed her robot did not produce a particularly coherent essay. The conversation moves on to writing as process—prewriting, brainstorming, mindmapping, outlining, workshopping, conferencing, revising—all the weapons we have against robots that can generate an essay in six seconds. But I am distracted now, because Professor Martin has taken up residence in a corner of my mind, where he sits, dejected, still trying to write his poem, hitting his head against the wall.

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of essays, Xylotheque, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere.

Exposing My Truth

January 10, 2023 § 19 Comments

By Regina Landor

My brother once said to me when we were discussing a disagreement I had with another family member: “Being right isn’t always what matters the most.”

I understood what he meant: peace is what matters. I’ve kept his words with me for many years. They’ve helped me scramble down from the high moral ground on which I sometimes find myself waving a flag.

But it’s tricky. I’m one who feels compelled to set things right. Maybe it’s my mild case of OCD. A picture hanging crookedly on a wall? No thank you. A religious zealot who’s afraid of same-sex figurines on top of a cake? I can’t even. An inappropriate comment made in the margins of a piece of writing from a member of my writing group? Come again?

I wrote a piece recently about a time when I was 13 years old and touched by a boy for the very first time. Raw stuff. Delicate material. Not wanting to spell out the V word, I used what seemed like a compromise: a metaphor. My golden spot, I wrote. It seemed pretty darn golden when it was touched. Who knew there was so much gold down there?

Was I wrong to be angry when my fellow writer’s comment in the Google doc read: I’m not buying this? When she said: This is too sophisticated for a teenager? And even further: This is evasive and I think it would be better reworded—without offering any constructive criticism as to how she thought it should be reworded?

She also wrote, “Plus, total lack of privacy.” It was unclear to me if she meant that because the boy and I were in the backseat of a car driven by someone’s dad the scene lacked privacy (Duh) and was therefore not believable; or if she meant that she was uncomfortable with the privacy of the subject matter. Clear as mud.

The comment compelled me to write an email to our four-person group (I’d only met the writer of the comment online) to spell out feedback etiquette, namely: We’re writing our truth, and we need to be careful not to judge or criticize or impose our values on each other’s work. When starting this group, I suggested everyone read Peter Biello’s essay On Giving Feedback. And for the most part, our members have followed his advice, lending support and encouragement as well as good suggestions.

Was I wrong to be angry by her comments? I may have been wrong in my response, which I made in the margins of my piece after sending my email. As to the “evasive” remark, my husband suggested I tell her I wasn’t talking about my elbow. But I didn’t want to be sarcastic. Instead, I chose edgy. And then I did spell out the V word, just to seal it.

She replied in the comments that she only meant the scene didn’t ring true to her, not that she didn’t believe me. Truthfully, it is one of the most truthful scenes I’ve ever written. Another member of the group wrote in response to the scene: “So powerful.”

Who am I to believe? That the scene doesn’t ring true, or that the scene is so powerful?

I wrote her another email, apologizing for being edgy in my comments, but also saying that her remark about it being “too sophisticated for a teenager” implied that she doubted my experience.

I didn’t receive a reply. At least, not right away.

This exchange took up days of headspace. It also made me wonder whom I could trust with my work. I’m a writer here. I have a nasty habit of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I was born a sensitive soul. Flippant remarks tend to have the opposite effect on me: they don’t flit away. I like criticism, I want criticism, but what does “I would reword this” do for me except cause me to doubt what I’m doing?

It’s a two-way street: if people offer comments, they should at least be as thoughtful as the writer of the piece. I know it’s all a learning process. We’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. But sometimes it’s necessary to push restart and remind ourselves and others what we’re doing here. Our goal is to be supportive and kind. Feedback can help the writing process and it can thwart it.

I got over it. I hadn’t been wounded, only mad. In fact, it spurred me to write a little piece about Pandora’s box. (What was in the box, you ask? You guessed it—vaginas.) I deleted the comment thread and wondered if she’d remain in our group.

Fortunately, after what seemed like weeks (it was only half a week) the writer of the comment responded to my apology email. With grace. She apologized herself. And she closed her email by signing off with one of my favorite words: Onward!

The exchange may have given us both pause. She acknowledged that she “missed the mark” with her comments; I had the opportunity to think about my own sensitivity and how she wasn’t intentionally trying to upset me. I’m glad it’s all behind us and we can get on with the business of writing our truth, however private it may be. As to whose comment I should believe about my delicate scene: I concluded that the one person I need to believe is me.


Regina Landor, preschool teacher, is the lucky recipient of daily hugs from four-year-olds. She and her husband raised their two boys overseas with the Foreign Service, living in Serbia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia. While in Dhaka, she wrote the book Marry Me Stop about her mother’s extraordinary life and lapse into dementia. Her first book, Forever Traveling Home, chronicles the experience of moving overseas with toddlers. Examples of Regina’s recent writing appear in the literary magazines Coalesce Community and Black Fork Review. She and her family live in Maryland.

How My Vaudevillian Great-Grandparents Taught Me to Love Shameless Self-Promotion

January 9, 2023 § 25 Comments

Hap Hazard

By Melissa Hart

I started writing when social media meant word-of-mouth, an article in the newspaper, or if you were lucky, a minute on the radio to plug your project. Before Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and TikTok and all the rest, “shameless self-promotion” ranked up there with the F-word. Somehow, readers were supposed to find out about your work without your input. And so, I blushed at the audacity of the poet I met at a writing conference wandering the halls with a wagon full of paperbacks and a t-shirt that read “ASK ME ABOUT MY BOOK!”

My own first memoir, picked up by a small press, came and went without fanfare. I barely publicized it, and the publisher didn’t, either. When a different editor purchased my second memoir, my mother—a veteran public relations manager—stepped in.

She’d learned from the best; my great-grandparents had been comic performers in circus and vaudeville, and their success depended on their ability to promote their act in surprising ways. Mom sat me down at her favorite coffeehouse in Ojai and proceeded to teach me everything they’d taught her.

“Honey,” she began, “You need to get this story out there. Figure out how it’s of use to people, then come up with fun ways to promote it.”

“Of use to people?” I repeated. “How is a memoir of use to people?”

She pointed her omnipresent purple marker at me. “Is your book inspiring, educational, or entertaining?” she asked, and answered for me. “All three. You mention Frito Boats in the second chapter—you could make a mock cooking video with your book strategically placed.”

I cringed. “Too in-your-face,” I groaned.

She pursed her lips. “You want this thing to sell? Then figure out a way to promote it.” Then she intoned my great-grandmother’s favorite line. “And make it a spectacle.”

My great-grandmother, Mary, met my great-grandfather in the early 1900s circus when she was a bareback rider, and he was a wirewalker. They developed a comedy juggling act for vaudeville and U.S.O.. She loved to recount how they flew from theater to theater in a biplane with my great-grandfather’s stage name—Hap Hazard—painted on the wings. When he neared a city, he flipped the plane upside down so people could read his words. . . the ultimate self-promotion.

Hap Hazard and Mary Hart

“Comedy was crucial back then,” my great-grandmother said more than once. Audiences reeling after World War I and struggling during the Great Depression craved entertainment. Even more so after the second World War. Audiences needed what my great-grandparents were selling.

Mary curated their decades of glossy black-and-white headshots, their posters and newspaper reviews. None of this embarrassed her. You had a product, and you figured out a way to get it into people’s hands. If that product was a circus bareback and juggling act, you literally paraded it through the streets of town alongside elephants and acrobats. If you had a vaudeville act, you flew into cities upside down. The idea of spending years perfecting one’s art and then not creating a spectacle, seemed to Mary–and to my mother–ridiculous.

I ended up making the Frito Boat video, channeling my comedic relatives to teach viewers, with mock gravitas, how to cut bags of corn chips along one side and spoon in chili and cheese. The film resonated. Directors of writing conferences saw it and invited me to present. Booksellers asked me visit their stores. I got an agent and another book deal. Mary and my mother were right.

These days, shameless self-promotion is the rule rather than the exception. Even venerable Broadway stars have taken to twerking on TikTok. My great-grandparents would approve. Social media gives us permission to celebrate our creations, to acknowledge our work and our sacrifice. It’s allowed us to give generously of our knowledge.

I’m thinking of Caseen Gaines, author of Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way; he makes TikTok videos about Black history and popular culture. His recent post about two Black psychologists who helped to desegregate schools has—to date—27.5K views.

I’m thinking of queer Dominican American author Claribel Ortega whose forthright, witty social media posts helped turn her into a New York Times bestseller. I’m thinking of the fans who, like vaudeville audiences long ago, help their favorite entertainers succeed with word-of-mouth. My great-grandparents would have put their biplane up on TikTok in a hot minute and reveled in their success because they knew they had a value-adding product.

My mother and my great-grandparents are gone now, up in that happy vaudeville theater in the sky. But I sense their presence every time I launch a piece of writing or teach others to do the same.

Last summer, I taught at a writing conference, and a lovely silver-haired woman raised her hand. “I’ve got a novel coming out next month,” she told me. “I want it to find readers, but I find self-promotion vulgar.”

Melissa Hart

Around the room, other writers nodded in agreement.

Up at the podium, I suggested gently that she reframe her thinking. “Is your book inspiring, educational, or entertaining?” I asked, recalling helium balloons and trolleys and painted biplanes and circus parades. “Figure out how your book adds value to the world,” I told her. “Then come up with a way to promote it.”

“And one more thing,” I added. “Make it a spectacle.”


Melissa Hart is an Oregonian journalist and the author, most recently, of two middle-grade novels—Daisy Woodworm Changes the World and Avenging the Owl, as well as Better with Books:500 Diverse Novels to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, CNN, Longreads, and numerous other publications. www.melissahart.com and social media @WildMelissaHart .

Go Into the World and Listen

January 5, 2023 § 26 Comments

By Margaret Hawkins

Simone Weil supposedly said that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. We speak of paying attention, as if this gift is a currency. Writers certainly want to be paid in this currency (as well as in others, let me go on record as saying), but attention is also what writers pay to the world. Annie Dillard advises us to “admire the world for never ending on you – as you would an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away.”

How to begin, though? I have various tricks, but here’s my favorite.


Go into the world and listen to what people are saying to each other. I used to tell students to eavesdrop but that’s the wrong word. You don’t have to stand under someone’s window or break any code of etiquette. All you need do is get in line at the post office, walk your dog, get a coffee. Everywhere, people are talking, often shouting into phones. Just tune in. Or maybe you’ll “overhear” words on a handmade sign or a t-shirt or tattooed on the tender inside of a girl’s forearm.

Go home and write it down. It belongs to you now. Let it steep for a few days, or years. Then give yourself ten minutes, or years, and write about it. It stuck in your memory, why? Who said it or don’t you know because it floated as a scream out of an upstairs window? Do you mind that you find yourself wondering if that person who said it is stupendously wrong? Or maybe she’s right. Which is worse? Write about that. Why did what you heard make vomit rise in your throat and your day go dark? Write about that if you dare.

What I usually find when I do this, and for me it’s more an addiction than an exercise, is some mystery at the heart of the overheard thing, or some secret, or a portrait of some pure emotion I recognize, but never recognized other people also felt. If I overhear someone yelling about politics while I’m walking my dog, the words slip away. I’ve heard it all before, this side and that in the same tired phrases. It’s the weird stuff in between—the infinite, subtle fractions of human experience that appear between the plodding integers that are our official opinions—that stop me in my tracks. I collect these bits like a treasure hunter and take them home to fondle in private.

There was the man who, when his male dining companion ordered a glass of wine, said, “My mother says men who drink wine are philanderers.” I still hear his voice, like Marlon Brando, and see him butter his steak the way you’d butter a stack of pancakes. Why did he bring his mother into it? I can’t stop thinking about him, or about the woman behind the counter at the jewelry store back when you had to go to such a place to replace your watch battery. She was wearing enormous, jewel-encrusted engagement and wedding rings, which I noticed when she gestured to the curled and faded snapshots of two King Charles spaniels taped to the cabinet behind her and said to the man in front of me, “They were the loves of my life.” And what’s up with the two signs posted side by side that I saw on a back road: “No Dumping Animal Carcasses” and “House for Sale”?

It’s these glimpses into private places that move me, like the weirdly excited feeling I got as a child when I would make myself think about the fact that every other person around me had an inside that was just as deep and unknown to me as I was to them. It was like thinking about the ocean or outer space or the Sunday School promise of eternal life or the infinity mirrors in the YMCA locker-room where I took swimming lessons that reflected me back to myself forever, a sight that kept me awake at night, terrified. Everything’s so much deeper than we want to believe.

I use this exercise in my classes. I tell students to go out and listen, then follow a quote and let it lead them exactly where they need to go in their writing that day. As for me, I don’t listen to help myself write; I listen because I can’t stop myself, and if this compulsion to know what’s going in other people’s lives ever goes away, I will not only no longer be a writer, I will no longer be alive.

So, if you want to jumpstart your daily writing practice, walk your dog. Or sit on a train or go get a haircut. Unless you live in a remote place, you will soon encounter other human beings, most of whom are on their phones ignoring the scenery and you. They are talking about their children, their parents, their spouses, other people’s salaries and sex lives and sometimes their own. Love and disappointment, and what’s for dinner. I have eavesdropped recipes and tried to recreate them. This is how I learned to put radishes in potato salad. All you need is one good quote to keep your keyboard busy all day.


Margaret Hawkins’ third novel, Lydia’s Party, was published by Penguin in 2015. Her memoir about family schizophrenia, How We Got Barb Back, came out in 2011. She writes essays and short fiction; “Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian” appeared in The Missouri Review in January 2022. Her column about art ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, and she now writes criticism for Visual Art Source and essays for The Democracy Chain. Margaret teaches at Loyola University and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and when she’s not writing or teaching, can be found walking her dog, Willem. She can be reached on her website.

Go Figure: A Year’s End Accounting

January 3, 2023 § 23 Comments

By Jennifer Lang

Were someone to quickly scroll through my Submittable account dashboard and see the overwhelming number of asphalt grey and pencil lead black boxes, they’d probably assume I was a Loser, in need of new tactics or in the wrong profession. Not one beloved, coveted shamrock green box since November 2, 2021, for a story that cascaded out of me in hours and was snatched within a few days by The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.

Between January 5 and December 31, 2022, my folder looks like this:

RECEIVED                9

IN-PROGRESS          8

WITHDRAWN          7

DECLINED               53

ACCEPTED               0

To my non-statistician brain, Loser isn’t strong enough; these numbers scream failure, shitty writer, shoddy stories. To my been-around-the-block brain, Loser’s too harsh; I know better. It’s less about what I submitted and more about where I submitted (does the journal publish only pop culture stories or have a penchant for more meditational?), who is reading (what are the backgrounds and ages of editors and readers?), what else have they read lately (an abundance of second person, flash, CNF pieces or empty nester women’s woes of sleepless nights?), and what they’re looking for in submissions (traditional prose, hybrid, stories of childhood, research based?). Most of these questions, of course, I cannot answer.

If this would have been the sum total of my writing year, I might have stopped submitting, enrolled in a class, hired a coach, consulted a developmental editor. But these numbers are deceiving. They don’t tell the full story. They don’t show the two signed book contracts, one in March and the other in September, with Vine Leaves Press. They don’t reveal the love letters from the editors who read my manuscripts and highlighted everything they admired and asked me to sign on the dotted lines to make my dreams come true and turn my words into books.

Still, as the year comes to a close, I am baffled. How can I succeed at the one and bomb the other to such an extent? How can I continue to teach creative writing if I have no recent publications to show for myself? How am I supposed to feel confident with my book if I cannot master the shorter submissions? How can I close the crazy gap between book publication and the submission process?

As we start yet another cycle around the sun, I’d like to offer the following takeaways:

  • Know nothing about this process is personal. Everyone says it but I’ll say it again. As an assistant editor for Brevity, I read 10 submissions a week for a large chunk of the year. When I read, I am looking for story. For words that make me feel something. For good writing, well-constructed sentences, sentence variation, va-va-voom writing. For logic. For new, often overlooked points of views and perspectives. For an immersive experience where I lose track of time.
  • Keep going. Step into Frosty the Snowman’s shoes and put one foot in front of the other. Memorize this word and its definition like a mantra: perseverance (noun) = steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
  • Trust your gut. While rejections were piling up for my book manuscripts, I started feeling desperate and antsy (this precedes/bleeds straight into the Year of Submittable Rejections). What if these thousands of words never became real books? Then, two small presses said yes. The catch? Neither had actually read my work. One offered me a contract within hours of sending my proposal and filling out the publisher’s questionnaire. The other expressed her enthusiasm for my work based on fill-in-the-blank: what I’d previously published, who I connected to, how I presented myself. But it didn’t feel right. Being published without being read, not to mention edited, was one huge red flag. I asked writer friends who had already published books what they thought as well as writer friends who were in similar stages of submission. In the end, I dug deep inside myself, turned down the offers, and rolled the dice.
  • Believe in yourself. My biggest struggle. It doesn’t matter how many people cheer me on and tell me they love my writing. I doubt myself. My beginnings. My endings. The what-I’m-Trying-To-Say parts. But with time and maturity, age and experience, I am working on it. On myself. On believing.

May 2023 be full of the three-letter Y word: YES!


Jennifer Lang was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, lives in Tel Aviv, and runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-shorts and Landed: a yogi’s memoir in pieces & poses will both be published by Vine Leaves Press (September 2023 and October 2024). A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serve as Assistant Editor for Brevity. You can learn more about Jennifer Lang at www.israelwriterstudio.com or find her on her yoga mat: practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003.

Reimagined Book Launch: A Brew Hall, Beer, and Books

December 16, 2022 § 7 Comments

by Nancy Jorgensen with Elizabeth Jorgensen

The bookseller tilted and steered her dolly past the bartop where green-jerseyed Packer fans lingered. In the corner, poets waited for my book event to begin, heads inclined to each other—rock tunes muffled conversation. Meanwhile, the Packer fans hurled curses at the television, blaspheming the Washington Commanders.

Raised Grain Brewing Company was not known for literary affairs, but I loved the vibe. Soaring ceiling, crisp modern architecture, comfortable seating at high-top tables or low sofas, towering tanks humming in the background. RG embraced beers that “are a reflection of our drive to branch out, break convention, and celebrate the art…”

Everyday Warrior—an India Pale Ale

When I requested the Brew Hall, Rex had said, “Sure. There’s a $300 rental fee plus a catering minimum.”

“I wish I had a budget,” I said, “but I’m hosting a book launch and celebration of writers. But I hope one hundred or more people show up—paying customers.”

“Sorry—management policy.”

I said I’d check around for free venues and maybe call back.

“Oh, f*** it!” Rex said. “I can’t turn down one hundred sales on a Sunday afternoon.” The room would be ours, no charge, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.

Quick Release—Amber Lager

I posted on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, tagging Raised Grain. I hoped to draw a crowd not only to support my book’s launch, but to justify Rex’s gift. I did an interview for my local newspaper and posted again on social media. Launch day arrived, and I looped a slideshow on a giant welcome screen—Available today: regular pours, five-ounce pours, flights!

The airy space sprawled behind the taps. White oak tables and benches marched in perfect rows. Stools and a narrow countertop hugged the perimeter. A soaring glass wall showcased RG’s state-of-the-art steel fermentation vessels.

To launch our book, Gwen Jorgensen: USA’s First Olympic Gold Medal Triathlete, my co-author and I had posed a question: How could we design an event to celebrate a community—of authors, of businesses, of our county and state?

We settled on a shared affair and invited local writers to join us. Poets, essayists, novelists, romance and young adult authors. Each would deliver a three-minute pitch on their latest title.

Book launches typically transpire in bookstores to support a literary establishment. But ours would be in a brewery. Writers and brewers share traits. Both are creatives. Both sell products. Brewers market beer. Writers peddle words. Beer devotees purchase brews to smell and/or taste. Readers buy books to see and/or hear. The two sectors traffic in sense as well as cents. We hoped to champion both.

Chasing Giants—India Pale Ale

One after the other, writers commanded the front of the room. Some read a poem or two, one told a story, several elicited laughs. The audience sipped ales, lagers, and IPAs and followed a “tasting sheet” with cover photo, title, author, genre, page count, and price. A few patrons from the bar ventured by to investigate; several literary fans wandered in, bought books, and left.

After the elevator pitches, audience members browsed the bookseller’s table while authors answered questions and signed books.

Rex checked in and seemed happy to see our people ordering taps and cans. And pleased to watch waiters zig-zagging our space to deliver pizza and chicken tenders for those who ordered via QR code.

Mello Rillo—Session Hazy IPA

As the crowd broke up, I collected my computer, bookmarks, and business cards. My co-author and I helped the bookseller pack up and cart boxes to her van.  

Then we perched at the bar—my co-author with a Haze Before the Storm (Triple India Pale Ale), me with a Paradocs Red (Imperial Red India Pale Ale)—for a quick autopsy. We surveyed sales, which weren’t stellar for any one author, but profitable for the bookseller. And judging by the glasses and mugs we spied, the brewery made money.

But what about bigger goals? Does a brewery partner well with poetry and prose? Is the whole greater than the sum of poets plus novelists plus essayists plus beer? Could two authors and one book influence more than sales?

Our afternoon highlighted eight Wisconsin authors, sixty Wisconsin readers, thirty Wisconsin brews, one Wisconsin bookstore, and two titles featuring a Wisconsin Olympic champion. Like a Badger State yeast culture that ferments into Miller High Life, Wisconsin literary culture bubbles up robust and hearty too. It appeared a literary community could thrive alongside Packer cheeseheads.

Badgerland—Hazy IPA

Suddenly, overhead lights bathed the bar—Raised Grain closes early on Sundays. I downed the last of my glass, gathered my things, and closed the tab. On my way out, I slipped Rex $100.

Rex wore a look of gratitude. “Hey, thanks. Worked out great. Let me know if you want to do this again.”

Santa’s Sack—A Christmas Ale “like a gift…”


Elizabeth Jorgensen and Nancy Jorgensen are a mother/daughter writing team. Elizabeth is a creative writing teacher, and Nancy is a music educator. They recently collaborated on a biography of their sister and daughter: Gwen Jorgensen: USA’s First Olympic Gold Medal Triathlete. Their credits include Elizabeth’s recent release, Hacking Student Learning Habits (Times 10 Publications), Nancy’s Things They Never Taught You in Choral Education (Hal Leonard) and their family memoir, Go, Gwen, Go: A Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold (Meyer & Meyer Sport).

I’d Rather Work for Free

November 29, 2022 § 24 Comments

“Platform” and “literary citizenship” are the same behavior with different hats.

By Allison K Williams

Almost all of them tipped. Sadly, it was in Macedonian dinars.

I blogged a couple weeks ago about writing technique. How it’s valuable for artists to explore their craft and their tools in the company of other artists in the same stage of development. I mentioned these learning opportunities are rare for writers: we have plenty of write-your-feelings workshops and respond-to-pages workshops, but not much that goes past schooldays-grammar into building strong sentences and paragraphs. One commenter thought I’d missed the mark–she felt her K-12 education had been rigorous and adult writing classes she’d taken had covered plenty of technique. She also jabbed

But then I got to the bottom and see the whole essay was really a presale for your own classes here.


It hurts because it’s true. I do write blogs here and elsewhere to advertise my classes. I write long posts in Facebook writer’s groups where I’ve personally made the rule “anyone advertising must give immediately useful information; group members should benefit from your post even if they never click the link to explore your services.” I tweet threads breaking down editorial concepts or writing craft elements, then mention relevant webinars. I host The Writers Bridge, a free biweekly series on author platform, and yes, I mention my current offering in the emails with the Zoom links.

One of the things that attracted an agent and a publisher for my book, Seven Drafts, was proving through social media engagement and mailing list numbers that people think I’m an expert. Why do they think that? Because I’ve spent years giving away advice, and I still do. Last year, on a blog about freelance editing, a commenter asked

…do you give free advice online for writers? If so, my question is—do you think it is worth your time and effort?

I responded in part,

I do write blogs and participate in FB groups, and that way writers see the quality of the information I can offer.

That’s how we become experts. People try our free advice; if it resonates, if it makes their life or their work better, they come back for more. Memoirist Ashleigh Renard shows up on social media every day answering every direct message she receives. Her advice helps people. It also lets her know exactly what her audience needs. Love her free marriage counseling? Get some more at her retreat in Tulum!

We stay experts by making our free advice part of our income flow. I might spend an hour writing a blog, or three hours editing other authors’ work (free editing for them!) for the Brevity blog, or five hours preparing and running a Writers Bridge episode. Each time, I sacrifice billable hours for volunteer hours. Creating a new webinar–marketing copy, lesson plan, slides, workbook, execution, follow-up Q&A–is 16-18 hours. Attendees pay $15-25. They say things like “I got more out of this than a semester at my MFA!” and I can deliver that quality for $25 because a few hundred people show up. How do I get a few hundred people? By giving free advice to twenty thousand.

When I was a street performer, we delivered a theatre-quality show with acrobatics, aerial silks, duo trapeze, fire-eating, whip-cracking, audience participation and comedy. After each show, we passed the hat. Our job was to deliver a show so impressive, so captivating, that even though the entire audience could scatter without paying and suffer absolutely no penalties, they would choose to stand in line to hand us money. Plenty of people watched our show without paying. Some of them were cheap. Some of them were unhoused, or in hard times. Some of them shook our hands and apologized for not giving, and we said, “We’re just glad to have you at the show!”

We meant it.

Yes, we were working for money. Yes, it was our real job, and we needed people to pay us. But the joy of genuine communion with the crowd, of sharing regardless of profit, was part of what made the show worth seeing. The great artistic paradox is that the more you write, or paint, or dance, for sheer love of the work, the more monetary reward you’ll see…as long as you’re strategic.

As a trapeze artist, I said it in the hat pass: “Our greatest gift is your smiles, your laughter, and your applause. Unfortunately, we can’t go to our landlord at the end of the month and go”–clapping–“Good apartment man! Good apartment! Go power bill!” I’d say that the people who can pay subsidize the people who can’t, but everyone gets to see the show. I watched people look around, assess how many people were present, and pull out a ten or a twenty instead of a five.

In my editing and teaching career, I rarely say it out loud: Writers who pay me $3595 for a program or $4495 for a retreat subsidize every free blog post. Writers who buy an $1850 edit or a $685 book proposal evaluation have subsidized 50+ episodes of The Writers Bridge. I have privilege from income, whiteness, lack of children, and a supportive spouse, subsidizing my ability to lie in bed for an hour dispensing writing advice on social media and answering blog comments. I’ve made the calculation: I’d rather charge for value delivered than hours spent. That means doing about 1/3 of my total work hours for free, and pricing paid hours high enough to stay joyful and excited about volunteering. And I’ve learned that part of not feeling guilty about charging high prices (or advertising!) is not bothering to work for cheap–just happily working for free.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. OH LOOK SHE’S ALSO SELLING SOMETHING: Just cranked through NaNoWriMo? At the end of your draft and unsure what’s next? Please join her for the webinar Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Book December 14th. It’s $25. If you prefer to track down and print out every blog Allison’s ever written about story & structure, put them in a binder and work from there, it’s free!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Business of Writing category at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: