Hello, It’s Your Book Proposal. Stop Ignoring My Calls!

September 27, 2022 § 4 Comments

Writing your proposal will help you finish your book.

By Lisa Cooper Ellison

You’ve been avoiding it for years, but deep down you know it’s time. I get your procrastination. What artist wants to work on a business document, let alone one with nicknames like “soul crusher” and “creativity killer”?  

Like you, I once banished book proposals to the level of hell that contains root canals, moth-ball-scented stickers, and elementary school violin ensembles. But working on my proposal—and helping others build ones that have sold—has given me a new perspective on how, and more importantly, when, to work on one.

It’s sooner than you might think.

Top reasons for query rejections include:

  • lackluster writing
  • not understanding your target audience
  • someone else already published your idea
  • being an unknown quantity.

While revising your manuscript is the only way to improve your prose, working on certain parts of your proposal before completing your manuscript can help with the rest.

Author Platform Assessment  

Of the parts of the proposal emerging writers like to avoid, the About the Author section ranks just below the Marketing Plan. We’ve been told size matters, and most writers fear their author platforms won’t measure up. Here’s the good news: you don’t need to be a social media influencer to sell your book. You must, however, be able to reach readers. Bylines, guest posts, podcast interviews, and speaking engagements are a few common ways writers engage with their audience. These platform side hustles have the added benefit of helping you identify and refine your book’s narrative arc.

Got platform envy? There’s a simple cure. Assess your author platform well before you begin querying. To do this, complete two versions of your proposal’s About the Author section. In the first, create a snapshot of your current reach, including publications, speaking engagements, social media numbers, and people who could possibly write reviews or blurbs.

If your pages include a lot of white space, don’t panic.

In step two, write an aspirational About the Author section that includes the things you’d love to do, as well as your ideal reviewers and blurb writers. This isn’t just daydreaming. Imagining your successes will make you more likely to take the steps needed to turn your aspirations into legitimate entries on your final proposal.  

Comparable Titles Spot Check

Comparable titles—“comps”—help you understand your topic’s landscape. Jane Friedman suggests narrative and traditional nonfiction writers do an exhaustive comp title search before getting started. I heartily agree. Who wants to write a proposal or spend years on a draft only to find out another author has beaten you to the bookshelf?

Memoirists might wonder when to begin their official search, given how long their projects might take. Start too soon, and you can end up with a list of great books that are no longer relevant. Start too late, and you might find out someone else has written a book about a similar experience from the same angle.

If you’re a memoirist, the best time to build your tentative comps list is after you understand your personal story, but before you’ve finished your book. This will allow you to identify which conversations your book belongs to. Once you know the conversations, and the gaps within them, you can figure out the fresh new thing you’ll say. This might lead you to explore your book from a different angle, research an element you might not have considered, or try a unique structure that ties everything together without feeling crushed by rejections, or like you’re starting over.

If you’re looking to publish traditionally, this is essential. Gone are the days when you can write solely about your personal experiences. Memoirs that are currently selling are about how the author’s life intersects with something else.

Carol Smith’s Crossing the River (Abrams) is about what feature writing taught her about grief. Poe for Your Problems (Running Press) by Catherine Baab-Muguira shows you how Edgar Allen Poe can help your neuroses. Daniella Mestyanek Young’s Uncultured (St. Martins) explores the cults we malign, the ones we unwittingly sanction, and the brutal conformity both require.

Finding your angle and pumping up your platform while working on your draft will give you the confidence to write clearly and query more effectively.

So what are you waiting for? Answer your proposal’s damn call!

___________________________

Want to understand the proposal and learn some tricks that will help you not just nail yours but motivate you to complete your book? Join Lisa for The Three Essential Questions Every Agent Hopes Your Book Proposal Answers on 9/28 and Writing the Proposal: How to Finish and Sell Your Nonfiction Book on 10/5.

Brevity by the Numbers Part 3: Hard Math and Harder Math

September 9, 2022 § 8 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

Welcome to part 3 of “Brevity by the Numbers,” a three-part series detailing my discoveries from analyzing the hard (and squishy) data related to five years of Brevity essays. For the genesis of this research project, read Part 1: “How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” To discover Brevity’s most overused words and best-favored subjects, read Part 2: “Word clouds and other squishy results.” This final installment is where a non-analyst tries her hand at hard math.

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Before narrative, before voice, before tense and point of view, before even paragraph and sentence, there was a word. The word that birthed every other word, brought them all forth stacked and tumbling. Hieroglyphs slick with meaning that, when we’re lucky, conjure a universe in a few scratches of ink.

Flash essays are made of very few and specific words. But it’s difficult to conjure worlds in less than 750: fewer than half the essays I read achieve a sub-650 count, and only 11% contain less than 400 words. A grand total two essays limbo under the 150 threshold. It’s hard to write small. More than a third of Brevity’s accepted submissions from 2017 to 2021 clock in at 700-749 words.

Zooming outward to the rooms the words built: sentences and paragraphs. There appear to be three categories of flash essay: the nearly-if-not-exactly-single-sentence, the balanced essay, and the choppy essay. But to prove this theory, I’ll have to analyze sentences and paragraphs simultaneously, and I need to work myself up to that level of math.

Instead let’s examine the building’s aesthetic: essay type, point of view and tense. 58% of the pieces are best understood as personal essays: personal experiences told using literary techniques. Essays like Megan Pillow Davis’ “Whenever Men Think I’m Smiling,” which cleverly lulls me into forgetting the title by the end of her 708 words, such that I read her bared teeth as a snarl. Like Donna Steiner’s gleeful “Lick”—though that anecdote begins with a short list. Speaking of, more than half of the hermit crabs (themselves 13% of Brevity’s essays) are lists. The rest tend toward the lyric, the fragmented, the braided—all arguably subsets of the personal essay. Only 8 of the 228 essays analyzed could be considered literary journalism. The gravitational tug of the personal helps writers to create a strong connection in such a brief space. 

This logic also explains why 85% of the essays are in the first person singular. I. Me. Point of view perspective from my eyes, staring at my chapped fingers tapping these words onto my MacBook keyboard. Distant second of second person, you netting only 9% of the essays in my data set. You that can invite a reader in, you that can put difficult events at a distance, you that sometimes requires acrobatics for exposition that you should already know since you are, well, you. First person plural and third person the remaining 6%, handfuls of essays managing these tricky points of view.

Tense, too, tends personal: 64% using present—the immediacy of running, jumping, climbing trees. 35% went reflective, those that ran, jumped, and climbed in some sepia-tone past. Only 1% thought forward: one day, when my back doesn’t ache from slouching in front of this computer, I will run and jump and climb.

Narrative time period is a different beast. In The Best of Brevity, Dinty W. Moore commended the “inventive writers” who quickly disproved his preliminary hypothesis that successful flash must focus on “the smallest period of time possible” (x). My graph verifies Moore’s realization: there are no narrative limitations to a flash essay.

Which brings me to scary big “M” Math.

Removing Jill Kolongowski’s “160 Things That Scare Me”—a true outlier with 199 sentences across 97 paragraphs—I pivot my table, nest sentences beneath paragraphs, and command Excel to create a scatterplot. Setting the background to black, I sit and stare. I like to see the flash this way, a swarm of lighting bugs, a constellation of stars.

I am happy to disprove my tidy theory of three essay types: in place of distinct groupings, a continuum. Most essays fall within a rough parallelogram below 20 paragraphs and 55 sentences. As paraphs increase, so do sentences—it would be difficult to read an essay that broke sentences across the backs of paragraphs (though successful in Irina Dumitrescu’s “Line,” and Kristine Langley Mahler’s “A Knot on the Finger,” among others). The bands of yellow dots seem to slope upward at the same rate, hinting at a golden ratio. When I limit the data to the concentrated area of light and insert a trendline (I impress even myself with this bit of Excel wizardry), I get the following Math:

y = 0.9497x + 22.595

R² = 0.2122

It doesn’t feel all that actionable, and a quick Google search confirms my coefficient of determination (R²) is probably weak. I talk up my coefficient, try to give it the determination to succeed, but it replies that I should brew another mug of peppermint tea and look elsewhere for answers.

I’m drawn to the graph’s brightness in the low paragraph counts. It signals those single sentence essays I expected to see—true one sentencers like Elena Passarello’s “Death Sentence” and close-enough-ers like David L. Ulin’s “Rite of Passage”—but also a second category: the stream-of-consciousness essay. These essays are one paragraph because it evokes the rush of a breath, words punctuated by sentences mostly for flair. Francis Walsh’s “I Can Shrink to Perfection” (22 sentences), Joe Plicka’s “But Whyyy?” (32 sentences), and even Allegra Hyde’s “Misinformation” (45 sentences) could be categorized stream-of-consciousness.

Digging further, I diagram the words per sentence of three stream-of-consciousness essays: “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” “Twenty Minutes,” and “Anniversary Disease.” Here we see the melody, pitch, and rhythm of the flash.

“If You Find a Mouse…” and “Anniversary Disease” meander along gentle turns. In contrast, “Twenty Minutes” is a high-speed chase—all peaks and valleys, especially the build and drop between Sabrina Hick’s first four sentences.

Performing the same work on five more essays, chosen because they reside in the average band of the scatterplot and because I like them:

The turn from short to lyrical sentences halfway through “WANTED: Biological Father” is obvious. The rapid fire of “Known Killers” unceasing. The lyricism of “Conduction,” the devastating finale of “Women These Days,” the evenhandedness of “When a 17-Year-Old Checkout Clerk in Small Town Michigan Hits on Me, I Think about the Girl I Loved at 17,” all appear in the graph.

Viewing flash as sentences per paragraph simplifies the drama into soft, undulating waves, the same way ocean breaking over coral turns to rumpled velvet when viewed from an airplane.

Is this a useful way to think about writing flash? Or writing generally? Perhaps a tool for revision, to ensure musicality matches content and voice. To bend and crack sentences until they shine like glowsticks. Will this data land you a Brevity byline? Against the odds, it got me one, so who knows!

Please comment with your insights. Perhaps together we can feed our addiction and tame the beast of flash.
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Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

Brevity by the Numbers Part 2: Word Clouds and Other Squishy Results

September 8, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

Welcome to part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers,” a three-part series detailing my discoveries from analyzing the hard (and squishy) data related to five years of Brevity essays. If you want to learn why I began this research, how I built my data set, and what qualifies me to write about it (spoiler alert, not much beyond chutzpah!), go back and read Part 1: How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” In this installment, I make pretty word clouds and sad discoveries.

Piling up five years of Brevity essays and titles into one long document, I find a total of 138,991 words, of which 23,678 are distinct, according to FreeWordCloudGenerator.com. 210 writers published between 2017 and 2021 agree on this top five: “the” (7,907 instances), “and” (3,811 instances), “to” (3,271 instances), “of” (2,839 instances), and “in” (2,390 instances). “My,” “on,” “you,” “that,” and “is” round out the top ten. Onward down the list: it, he, with, for, her, was, his, she, we, as, at, but, when, from, your, like, not, me—all solid, functional words. Utilitarian. Common words that till the fields to present bushels of barley to their liege terms, those canorous locutions.

But I do not seek royalty, the kind of words I must gossip about with a dictionary to get the inside scoop. I seek, instead, middle-class words, words you see on a Sunday, wearing a yellow hat on the way to the flower market. Removing special characters and stopwords, FreeWordCloudGenerator drops the distinct count across every essay in this census to 15,375.

One. Back. Know. Time. Say. Day. Just. Even. Says. Man with 162 mentions, body 158, want 156, home tying think with 153. Freud may have been right—our Oedipal complexes apparent in mother besting father by 119 uses. We’re obsessed with love, and something, and everything. We have eyes and faces and red hair and old skin. We want. Feel. Need. A hand to hold. A dog at the door. A little something. Maybe nothing. Words that make a world.

Former The New York Times senior software architect Jacob Harris would be appalled by this analysis. In a 2011 article for Neiman Lab titled “Word clouds considered harmful,” he cautions that word clouds “can be wildly misleading,” warning amateur researchers like myself not to “confuse signifiers with what they signify.” He then gets needlessly hurtful, writing, “Every time I see a word cloud presented as insight, I die a little inside.”

I wouldn’t want to kill your insides, Mr. Harris formerly of The New York Times. I’ll try to do better. After segmenting the essays into 55 categories (from “illness – COVID” to “nature”), I find the most popular subjects are parent-child and romantic relationships (22 and 19 essays respectively). Slotting the 55 categories into overarching themes, 20% of the essays cover illness; 20% relationships; 14% death; 6% racism; 6% crime, rape or abuse; 6% gender or sexuality; 4% mental health; 4% infidelity, divorce, or contraception; 1% disability; and the remaining 19% a hodgepodge of self, religion, language, travel, news, food and the like.

Does the subject need to be universal to work in a space so small? Most of the Brevity essays are about entirely human experiences. The minds in flash do not float in antiseptic tanks, waxing philosophical on whether thinking is being. These minds are muddy, messy with bodily fluids, and suffering a panic attack, or Alzheimer’s, or dysmorphia. So few of the bodies in Brevity are joyful that I found myself celebrating each one in Excel marginalia, jotting “happy! how lovely” by Scott Loring Sanders’ “Bee Man,” “a celebration!” beside Amie Whittemore’s “This Abortion is an Act of Love,” and “more joy! now at the end” next to Brenda Miller’s “Typos.”

I wonder at Jack Pendarvis’ “Shana’s Father Wins a Monkey.” Who is the speaker? Who are they speaking to? I turn this essay over like a stone in the mouth, loamy on the tongue. Though I am exactly half the narrator’s 70 years in “Solving for X,” I see myself in her questions. How many more words will I write? How many chances will I get? How do I make them count?

The last lines of Jeff Newberry’s “Butchering,” echo in my head: “Like Michelangelo before a stone, I sometimes think the story exists buried in language. I forget that before I take up my knife, I have to invent the creature who roams the woods alone.” Have I invented that solitary animal here, or am I carving up nothing into smaller pieces of nothingness?

Data is the opposite of nothingness. I still believe the data can save me. I pivot my unwieldy table once, twice, three times, and ask the numbers to talk dirty to me. 

Data about titles

86% of titles contain fewer than five words. Though in theory it is possible to have a title longer than the flash it crowns, I have yet to see one. Single word titles are nouns (or rather, 79% of them are). A trinket to clutch to your chest. Hold close. Real. Though the strategy is growing in poetry, only five of the 228 essay titles stand in for the start of the first sentence. Beware of trends, for they may not get you published.

Data about contrast

42% of essays sport a 26 to 75-word difference between their longest and shortest sentences. Only 7% stretch that difference to more than 300 words. Short is quick. Long takes a whole lungful of air. Every single essay breathing thin atmosphere at this altitude achieved such heights by containing a sentence less than four words in length.

Data about dialogue and scene

If you have scene, you have dialogue exchange. If you have not scene, you have not dialogue exchange. This rule, like all rules, is not exact enough to be tattooed onto one’s body.

Data about you

You need not be a creative nonfiction writer (though it probably helps). 46% of Brevity’s writers are poets and fictioneers. You need not be traditionally published. 39% of Brevity’s writers had not a single book to their byline at the time of publication. You will probably get one shot. 92% of Brevity’s writers were featured only once in the journal during this five-year sample.

But this is all just foreplay. Stay tuned for part 3 of “Brevity by the numbers,” where I try my hand at the kind of hard math that could unlock the true form of the flash essay. 
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Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

Brevity by the Numbers Part 1: How I Cheated My Way into a Brevity Byline

September 7, 2022 § 21 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

It was a simple enough idea: Read five years of Brevity, log each piece in an Excel database, then tickle the data until it tells me something useful about the common features of flash nonfiction essays. As a writer new to flash, I wanted to understand the rules of the genre, so I could be deliberate about breaking them. When I couldn’t find much literature to guide me, I decided to make my own. A secret, shameful part of me wondered if graphs and statistics could help me crack the code to getting my own Brevity byline.

Apparently, the real cheat code to a Brevity byline (see it? right there? below the title?) is spelunking wildly beyond my depth and soliciting an interview with editor Dinty W. Moore, who then invited me to transform my research into a series of craft essays for the Brevity Blog.

I shouldn’t be here. I’m not a professor, or especially well published. Though I supervise (and am supervised by) people who know Python, I cannot speak the language of the snakes, don’t know how to programmatically scrape the web, can’t write to an Azure instance, or arrange SELECTs and semicolons into a SQL statement. I have carved a niche for myself, professionally, wherein I transform research done by others into compelling stories. None of the very smart people I work with were involved in this project.

What I am is curious. Like many creative nonfiction writers, I style myself a scientist, poking at the world and myself to test hypotheses, as eager to be proven wrong as right. So I set this curiosity to work, reading flash after flash in the precious hours after the baby happily curled into his sleep sack and the toddler unhappily lay down in her big-kid bed (but only after I completed the correct number of kisses to specific body parts, both of which varied nightly).

My process was simple, studious, and a skosh error prone. As I read every Brevity essay published between 2017-2021, I logged the numbers associated with each in an Excel database with the help of WordCounter.net. I arbitrarily decided upon the site after a search for free word counting tools, but over time gained great affection for its soothing blue color scheme, its motto “Every Word Counts,” and its bold exhortation to “Bookmark this page now.” With WordCounter.net’s aid, every Brevity essay transformed, alchemy-like, into an Excel row of numbers: longest and shortest sentences, word and paragraph counts, essay type, point of view—34 columns in all.

From there, the steps were simple, and therefore confounding:

  1. Find and correct errors. Worry about the errors that remain unfound.
  2. Pivot the table. Pivot my thinking. Pivot 360 degrees in a circle.
  3. Make graphs. Tell the graphs how pretty they look. Find the graphs uncaring.
  4. Worry the reason this has never been done before is that it is a colossal waste of time.

Brevity should come with a warning label—flash is an addictive substance. The magazine is brimming with tiny worlds, or as managing editor Zoë Bossiere calls them in her introduction to The Best of Brevity (published in honor of the magazine’s 20th anniversary) “beacon[s] of small truths” (xvii). The essays went down easy—like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Milk & Cookies—but were similarly heavier in the belly than they were on the tongue.

Nightly, I made myself sick. Long after I closed my laptop, I wondered about the non-pandemic version of Beth Ann Fennelly’s “Me vs. Slugs: Pandemic Edition.” Wrote “breathtaking” next to Carrie Jade Williams’ “When I Speak Why Do I Become More Invisible?” Tried to recall where I’d read Laurie Easter’s “Kindness and Sorrow” before. Spun out for hours on 333 words, 68.8% of them unique, all of them bitterly laughing at the cancer risk underlying Anne Panning’s hermit crab “Intro to BRCA1+ Quiz.

Like the not-quite scientist I am, I started formulating a theory long before the data set was complete. Flash essays seemed not quite a big thing shrunk small, but rather, a fun house mirror reflection of a larger essay. Short sentences just as short. Long just as long. But also, just as much emotion, reflection, action, scene, dialogue, all of it stuffed into a wee package. The tone tended sadder. Brighter. Sharper.

Early conclusion: subtlety is not for the small. Economy leaves no room for buildup, no mild arc to a restrained-yet-satisfying conclusion. In his introduction to The Best of Brevity, Moore writes, “In such a small allotment of words, there is no time to clear one’s throat, to gently introduce the story before moving leisurely along to the point of tension, the moment the reader’s curiosity is piqued” (x). In a flash essay you best immediately punch me in the eye, offer me a raw steak to sooth the hurt, then tell a joke so I’ll laugh through the pain.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? A life, contained in a thimble, built with a stranger’s words.

After inhaling five years of flash, I became convinced that I will never write as well as all of you. That I will never bend the creativity to the metrics, or the metrics to the creativity, to unlock the spell of this particular magic. That there is some spark Brevity authors have, something I see in myself only occasionally, such that I read your work and wonder how some squishy gray matter could have pulled these words, an average of 4.5 characters in length, from the dictionary and placed them just so.

With my Brevity database complete, I gazed across a sea of numbers, unable to quiet my internal critic. After all this time, had I discovered anything at all? I’d rather read another five years of Brevity than figure out what to say about it.

So I’m not going to. At least, not in this craft essay.

See, I really shouldn’t be here—I’m cheating even now, splitting my findings across three essays (at Dinty’s suggestion no less), thereby neatly avoiding the recommended word limit. Stay tuned for part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers”: Word clouds and other squishy results.

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Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at leslie.stonebraker@vcfa.edu

The Evolution of a Title

June 24, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Barbara Ferraro

Ever google ‘how to title a book?’ From YouTube videos to master classes, title generators to ten-step plans, there’s plenty of online help. Build on a theme or phrase from the story. Use a character’s name or memorable setting. Pull keywords from a hat, two by two, till you find a pair that sings. Lots of free advice but no easy answers. Which leads me to believe: maybe the book chooses the title.

Twenty years ago, I began writing memoir as an antidote to my dysfunctional Sicilian in-laws. The well of inspiration was vast and deep. Gloomy, troubled scenes about family secrets, my husband’s hush hush adoption, a conspiracy to hide the truth, and a script straight out of The Sopranos flowed from my fingertips to the page in a total brain purge. The saga was dark and disturbing—but oh, so shallow.

Did I mention the curse? Malocchio, or Evil Eye. From the Italian mal, meaning bad, and occhio, meaning eye. Bad luck cast upon you by an evil person—usually someone close. Rooted in spite or envy.

Evil Eye, the first working title,captured the mood of my early rant. But titles are placeholders, like my father’s second wife, which thankfully don’t last forever.

What is the story about?

As my anger eased and writing improved, this one-dimensional tirade morphed from flat and bitter to multilayered and rich. And a funny thing happened. A handful of objects kept sneaking into the scenes. Vintage slot machine straight out of the Untouchables; beat up suitcase stashed in a musty basement for fifty years; silver spoons hidden from the Nazis in the mountains of Norway; a stack of wartime love letters from the South Pacific. Ordinary objects with extraordinary personal significance. Objects too personal, too painful to touch. Objects that felt like characters on the page.

Ordinary Objects screamed at me in capital letters as the natural second title. It was perfect. Perfect, until the objects started squawking. They had different opinions, different voices, and two completely different points of view. I watched in awe as a second thread emerged from the scuffle, poking up here, weaving through there, to form a more complex story than I ever could have imagined. But as the writing evolved, this title also fell short.

What is the story about?

On the umpteenth revision, a pivotal sound bite buzzed on the page like a neon sign. ‘Blood of my children,’ four words spoken at the aha moment that braided the intertwining threads together. Then it clicked. Two people—my husband and me—with different histories, searching for the same answers: who am I, why am I here. Two people whose separate identities merged in our children. Knowing ourselves so they could know themselves. Bloodline, ancestry, heritage. This book was their unvarnished family tree. Blood of My Children elbowed its way to the title page, where it stayed for quite some time.

Too bad it sounded like a crime story. I loved it, I hated it, I wanted it to be The One. It captured the essence of the narrative but sent the wrong message. I had taken the writing as far as I could. I tucked the project away and moved forward.

Months later, alone in my office, the manuscript whispered from its hiding place in the bottom desk drawer: hey dummy, what’s left when everyone dies?

Wait. What?

The memoir that lived in my mind, on my laptop, in a drawer, inside my heart for two decades had its own timeline. Shit happened, people died, but what did any of it mean. The story marinated, I ruminated. Time and distance sharpened the focus as I learned to listen to the writing. Which brings me here.

When the noise and chaos, anger and pain, sadness and longing of thirty years finally faded to a whisper, what was left was love. Love is more powerful than family dysfunction, war, and even death.

So simple. What’s Left When Everyone Dies.

That’s the one.  

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A third generation Chicagoan, Barbara Ferraro is a married mother of two fine adults, interior designer, and foodie who appreciates a nice glass of Chardonnay—very cold.

The Power of the Editor

June 13, 2022 § 26 Comments

By Cathy Shields

Forty years ago, while taking a college course in children’s literature, I set out to write a children’s book. But my career as an elementary school teacher interfered, and my publishing dreams evaporated. When I became a mother of a child with a disability, the next twenty years blurred the boundaries between order and chaos.

By the time I took another creative writing class, my children were teenagers, and I was in my late forties. The teacher wielded his pen like a sword, a grizzled old guy who yelled at students when they couldn’t explain where to place a comma in a sentence. Still, he walked around the room cajoling us with, ‘write what you know.’ I wrote about my chaotic life. The idea for my book jelled with a theme which revolved around raising a child with disabilities.

I joined writing groups to help develop my skills; I learned about first, second, and third persons; first, second and third drafts, how to identify weak verbs, how to self-edit, how to revise, and the differences between passive and active voice. Fast forward another two years. I attended my first writing conference, ready to query my manuscript. I met an editor who taught the craft of memoir. After I described my book, she told me the next step should be a developmental edit.

I did not yet understand what an editor could do and, unwilling to make the financial commitment, I relied on my writing groups and scores of beta readers for feedback on whether my book was ready before I began researching agents. Responses bounced between form rejections and silence. After fifty queries, I got one request for a full manuscript and within two weeks, a rejection.

Would I ever get my book published? I thought my story about how I faced an internal struggle to accept my child with intellectual disabilities, had universal interest. The theme: learning acceptance. I had fought my child’s diagnoses until I gradually came to the realization that my daughter did not need to change, I did. Perhaps I had revised the story so many times that I had become shortsighted. Maybe it was time to find an editor.

The one I found appreciated the story I was trying to tell, and with her help, I revised and sent out a new round of queries. A well-known press showed interest; I had a request for the full manuscript. I am still astounded that I emailed them to get more insight into the rejection.

Their response?

Too much reporting about doctors and specialists.

I sought out a new editor. This time I asked writer friends for recommendations. The person I chose, Monica, taught creative writing at a university and had published a memoir about a difficult subject, the imminent death of her baby. Although her editing wouldn’t guarantee I’d get my book published, I believed her insight could add a new perspective to the narrative arc of my story.

Two weeks later, I received the revised manuscript. The sculpting almost made me cry. The opening scene disappeared; the one everyone told me had to remain for my hook, the one where the doctor labels my child profoundly retarded.

In her editorial notes, she wrote: Don’t give the whole story away in the first chapter.

She moved scenes and pointed out where I needed to build scenes or add dialogue, but she hadn’t twisted my voice into her own words. What she had done was fiddle with structure. That’s when I finally understood the power of a good editor. Monica was the surgeon, I, the intern. She taught me what to cut away to repair and restructure.

I sent out the newly edited version in my next batch of queries, surprised when I received multiple requests for the full-length manuscript. None of this would have happened without my writing community, the previous editors, my beta readers, and the editor with eagle eyes. Last week, I signed a contract to have my memoir, The Shape of Normal, published with Vine Leaves Press. The book will be out in the fall of 2023.

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Catherine (Cathy) Shields writes about parenting, disabilities, and self-discovery. In her debut memoir THE SHAPE OF NORMAL A Mother’s Journey from Disbelief to Acceptance, (Vine Leaves Press 2023), Catherine explores the truths and lies parents tell themselves. Her stories have appeared in Mother Magazine, 50 Give or Take, Kaleidoscope, Uncomfortable Revolution, Write City, and Manifest-Station, and her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2019. She resides in Miami, Florida with her husband who she’s been married to forever. They enjoy taking long bike rides and kayaking in Biscayne Bay. She blogs at www.cathyshieldswriter.com or you can follow her on Instagram @cathyshieldswriter.

Witness: Selling Memoir Without Platform

June 9, 2022 § 12 Comments

Memoirists have it rough. Be a great writer. Tell a compelling story. But first, shake your tail on TikTok until a million people know who you are!

I’ve written before about how platform isn’t social media—social media is an amplifier for messages you’re already sharing in other venues, and a way to stay casually in touch with your audience and your literary community. I divide platform into two categories:

  • Audience grown from the author’s entire life’s work and career, in which the book is a logical next step conveying their existing mission to the world.

  • Audience created to support a forthcoming book, built from more intense work over a shorter time

Ideally, both kind of platforms build on what you already love to do and have spent your life caring about. But you don’t actually need any platform at all. Memoirs can sell with very little public presence: perhaps a few essays establishing the author’s public affiliation with the topic; an awareness of where the audience for that topic exists and how the book can reach them before and after publication; just enough social media that the author understands how to use it when the time comes to amplify their messages around the topic.

The key word here is topic.

A memoir exclusively focused on a personal story is almost impossible to sell—to an agent, to a publisher, to the reading public—without either an enormous public platform, existing connections in publishing, and/or National-Book-Award-level prose. Sorry. That’s the breaks. Work on your writing, figure out the reader takeaway, query small presses, consider self-publishing.

But a memoir centering a topic—an issue percolating through the zeitgeist; a closer look at a past cultural moment; something wrong with society that you personally experienced and impacts a lot of other people—is much more likely to gain the support of a traditional publisher.

In a topic-centered memoir, you’re not just the narrator—you’re a witness.

Your story is still important, but in the larger sense, it’s not about you. It’s about the reader, and a larger issue they’re already fascinated by, or that it’s important for them to become fascinated by, as told by someone with personal experience. Your story weaves in and through the topic, paired with research, interviews or anecdotes, with thoughtful commentary, and importance beyond your level (or lack of) personal fame.

Unlikely to sell: This dead person meant a lot to me and gosh it took a lot to move on with my life.

More likely to sell: Planning for death in a climate-crisis world.

Unlikely to sell: I tried to kill myself and recovery was financially incredibly hard.

More likely to sell: A look at our troubled healthcare system from the perspective of both caregiver and patient.

Unlikely to sell: I survived a violent crime.

More likely to sell: How our nation handles this particular violent crime is deeply wrong.

Each of the selling authors is not just the narrator, but a lens on a larger cultural concern. Their story is an example of why we should care, or an illustration of how we could handle our own situation. Not just what happened, but why it matters.

What does writing a topic-centered memoir look like before and during the writing process?

Brian Watson recently wrote about starting out with hybrid intentions but generating a personal-story focused draft:

My outline followed a unique format—one I know now is called hybrid memoir. I wanted to intersperse the things that I experienced with some thoughts about the culture as it shifted around me. There was data on the number of AIDS cases and fatalities swelled in the US. I could describe how Japan’s gay community evolved in the years before the Internet. And so much more.

When I started writing in September, however, the memoir—its original title, I Should Be Dead By Now, was grim—almost wrote itself. My first draft, completed on the last day of 2020, set most of the interspersions aside. The exorcising of memory consumed me to the tune of nearly 110,000 words.

But early readers (including me!) loved his now-few digressions on the history of gay porn, Japanese culture, and coming out in the 1980s. Watson set out to revise his entire draft, even though it felt like an enormous undertaking:

The research might have struck me as too much work when the actual, coherent transcribing of my memories was already a lot of work. Or I might have worried that those cultural backgrounds and deep-dives would bore readers.

Will it sell? We’ll find out soon (go Brian!). But many agents and editors I’ve spoken to agree: it’s much easier right now to sell a memoir with a larger cultural focus, one that illuminates something we’re all thinking about right now—or should be.

Ask yourself, how does my story reflect an important moment in our history or a problem we should all be aware of? How are my experiences reflected in and reflective of my culture, and how should that culture change? What will I need to research or investigate to support my point of view about this topic?

Traditional publishing is far from your only viable path. Maybe the memoir you personally feel called to write centers entirely on your own story. Maybe you already write National-Book-Award-level prose, or have 8M followers on TikTok (go you!). But if what you really want is to traditionally publish, to see your book in the wider world, and to reach more readers who need your words, it’s time to explore—and write!—how your story speaks to culture.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Struggling with getting your book into the world? Tired of form rejections? Join her and publishing expert Jane Friedman for Why Is My Book Getting Rejected—a sharp, honest look at what your concept, query and first pages need to get past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. Webinar June 23 (yes, there’s a replay!). More info/register here.

Revising a Tiny Love Story

May 26, 2022 § Leave a comment

In Brevity’s newest issue, Lori Tucker-Sullivan talks about revision, feedback, and how much is too much when taking the advice of editors or other writers. What do we owe ourselves as writers, through revision? Is it right or wrong to release our control of our own words?

Here is an excerpt:

… crafting a one hundred-word piece for The New York Times’ Modern Love Tiny Love Stories. It was a demanding exercise to tell a story that took place twenty years earlier about a letter written by my husband now also gone many years. There was the letter’s content, my response, new grief, old pain, so much to delve into within such a minimal word count. Once finished, I became attached. This piece was therapy, release, discipline, and acceptance, perfectly wrapped in exactly one hundred words.

You can read Tucker-Sullivan’s full essay, and see how her Tiny Love Story changed across drafts, in Brevity‘s Craft Section.

Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Diverse Voices in a New Anthology

May 4, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Rachael Hanel

After years of teaching media writing to undergraduates, I received the opportunity this semester to teach creative nonfiction to MFA candidates. Ever since I learned that Debra Monroe had published an anthology of creative nonfiction in 2020, I knew I wanted to use that book in a class.

What excited me most about the anthology, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, was Monroe’s clear intent to new, diverse voices among some of the CNF stalwarts we’re used to. Of course there are many great CNF readers out there, Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay being one of them. Others on my shelf include In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction; Literary Journalism: A Reader, and The Literary Journalists.

These fine volumes do what any CNF reader should do: present diverse offerings in terms of subject matter and form. Beginning and practiced CNF writers alike can learn a lot from them.

But they don’t always represent a wide diversity of voices. When I teach media writing, I primarily use examples from the world of literary journalism. Those anthologies rely heavily on the New Journalists of the 1960s that broke with the traditional journalistic form and made themselves part of the story: Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Hunter S. Thompson. No comprehensive study of literary journalism is complete without reading works by these trailblazers.

But it is 2022, and so many skilled CNF writers from traditionally underrepresented groups are contributing mightily to the diversity of voices. Monroe put together her collection precisely with an eye toward diversity, and the result is splendid and rich.

My students are responding positively. Not only do they like the variety of form and subject, but they see themselves in the writers. Says one: “I’m rarely exposed to writers who come from the same ethnic, linguistic and cultural background as myself, so it was interesting this week to read two essays from Mexican American writers.” I was thrilled to hear that, but also a little sad: He’s a graduate student in his mid-40s, and this is one of the few times he’s been exposed to writers who share his background.

Monroe’s book, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: An Anthology, is also helping me diversify other examples I use in class. I’m not going to throw away some tried-and-true essays that stand the test of time: “The American Male, Age 10” by Susan Orlean and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. But when I wanted to find examples of long-form journalistic profiles, I turned to my collection of The New York Times Magazine and chose a profile of Gayl Jones, a Black writer who seemingly disappeared from public view, as well as a profile of Questlove—both modern examples from 2021 that showed so well what a good profile can do.

I asked Monroe some questions about her anthology via email.

RH: What was the impetus in creating this anthology?

DM: As my friend, a poet, said: It’s the genre where the most is happening. It’s in an exciting state of change—open to influence, so suited to this era. Existing anthologies were already fifteen years old, with traditional essays. Do you remember when creative nonfiction used to be described as “like fiction only true.” I wanted an anthology with experimental essays and lyric essays, too.

And my campus is minority-white. Ten years ago, I ordered an anthology people recommended, and when I saw the table of contents, I thought: OK, I’ll photocopy essays by writers of color. But I walked into my class and saw my students. I didn’t like implying that writers of color were special status: photocopy-only. So I photocopied every reading assignment, aiming for variety. I discovered that many creative nonfiction teachers were photocopying for similar reasons. Sometimes, I’d order a few essay collections by single authors but didn’t get the sampler effect, the big range. And my craft lessons were a disorganized amalgamation. I wanted craft lessons in one place, synthesized in an accessible but not reductive way for readers just encountering the genre.

RH: There are so many excellent essays spanning centuries. How did you choose which ones to include?

DM: I’m indebted to Sarah Einstein for suggesting that the turn of the century is a good cutoff date for “contemporary.” I tried to stick to that. There are 48 essays in the anthology—500 pages of essays!—and the oldest, just four, by writers everyone considers essential, were published in the late-1990s.

Being inclusive affected decisions, too. Every campus isn’t as diverse as mine, but the country is. I used demographic percentages from the U.S. census as benchmarks. After that, I selected for variety in forms, styles, subjects. I consciously included well-known writers as well as writers who should be known.

RH: The release of this book got caught up, like many others, with the arrival of COVID-19. What was it like promoting a book during lockdown?

DM: I’d asked the textbook publisher to rent a booth at AWP—before the pandemic, prelapsarian times. My publisher does a lot of English titles, but was new to creative writing. When I sent a follow-up email asking for rented space for an off-site reading, explaining that this is how writers launch books—readings in bars—I never got an answer. So I rented, out of pocket, a private room in the Liberty Bar, a PA, a lectern. Four contributors agreed to read: short, sweet readings, five minutes each. Ira Sukrungruang, Camille Dungy, Sonja Livingston, Sayantani Dasgupta, Bonnie Ilza Cisneros. I sent invitations and had so many RSVPs I worried about the space being too small. You recall the slow-fizzle confusion as AWP had trouble deciding whether to cancel the San Antonio convention. As COVID news got worse, my readers began to cancel, and then I canceled. The only other publicity has been me posting on social media and one interview in Assay. Promoting the anthology has been like everything during COVID, subdued and solitary.

RH: It’s a large book with heft and depth. You told me that some people have commented about the size, but it’s comparable to fiction and poetry anthologies. Do you think the size signals that CNF is as worthy as other genres of a large reader?

DM: Yes, this magical genre deserves a big anthology! As teachers, we dip into big anthologies again and again, in different ways for different students or courses. Students find themselves seduced into reading essays not on the syllabus, and they keep these anthologies long after the semester is over, as resources.

RH: From my experience teaching out of this book, students are responding positively. You told me in an earlier conversation that one writing instructor reported a student said the anthology opened the world of CNF to her. Can you expand on that conversation? What else are you hearing from students or instructors?

DM: I recently taught out of it for an undergrad literature class that also included fiction and poetry. Students, nonmajors who’d never heard of the genre, loved creative nonfiction the most. On their evaluations, they said things like: These essays are about life now. These are the most relevant readings I’ve been assigned in college. That was a literature class, but their remarks remind me of what someone teaching creative writing in Oklahoma said. She sent this note:

It’s an amazing anthology, a game-changer. It makes a case, without being didactic, that we are in this together. One of my students said, “‘For the first time ever, I feel like I am living in the middle of history and my experience matters.” You do realize that the whole anthology, with introduction, headnotes, prompts, constitutes a radical pedagogy?

I included over a hundred writing prompts, and I’ve heard from people teaching graduate classes that the prompts have generated great essays. Writers gravitate toward their most unsettling experiences, and these experiences bubble up into even innocuous topics in interesting ways. I think how, in medical terminology, to “express” means to release something trapped, swollen. But the direct approach doesn’t always make for an artful release. Prompts help students make inroads into otherwise daunting or overfamiliar topics. Essays in the anthology cover many subjects, but those that cover dark subjects approach these sideways, as if by stealth. A student said to me last week that a few essays clarified for her that trauma isn’t always compelling, but, she added, “our imperfect buoyancy afterward is.” She’s already such a good writer. She put that well.

____

Rachael Hanel teaches media writing and creative nonfiction at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her book of narrative nonfiction, Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to Symbionese Liberation Army, is coming out in December from the University of Minnesota Press. Her memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, was published in 2013.

Yes, You Can Successfully Publish Your Book

April 19, 2022 § 8 Comments

By Dinty W. Moore

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

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

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

What is needed, is clear-headedness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

More resources on the various paths to publishing:

Jane Friedman’s Key Book Publishing Paths

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

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

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