January 15, 2021 § 14 Comments
By Jennifer Lang
For the past few years, my literary journal submissions have become more regular, my Submittable account more colorful. The grey DECLINED rectangles far outweigh the green ACCEPTED ones, with a smattering of black WITHDRAWN rectangles, along with a mix of two cool blues. This past year, I’ve received 56 no thank yous and 4 yesses, we love your work and would like to publish it.
But today, I had an epiphany similar to one in my memoir-in-progress. I can wallow in my losses, focus on the negatives, count and recount the rejections—or I can change my perspective and reframe my narrative. Because in 2020, a year like none other in my 55-year-old lifetime, I’ve achieved so much more than I ever imagined possible. I am no longer limited to writing creative nonfiction. I do not shy away from playing with form, from learning other genres, or from entering contests. Because in 2020, I have:
- 1 book review
- 1 essay (after 35 rejections over the past five years and countless revisions)
- 1 prose poem—all new territory and terrifying
- 1 unclear, experimental, hybrid CNF/poem with erasures and line breaks
- 1 list essay for an anthology called Art in the Time of Covid-19
- 1 1st-place flash contest win that led to
- 1 Pushcart Prize nomination
- 1 hold-on-tight, your essay has made it to our second round of reviewing for an anthology
- 1 of the most thoughtful, generous rejections to a contest with feedback from several readers, which led to back-and-forth emails with the editor-in-chief
And, of 13 submissions to various independent presses for a memoir manuscript, thus far 3 have declined, 4 in-progress, and 6 received on Submittable (not including all the others sent by email or separate systems).
Rather than dwell on what didn’t come to pass and think poor me, I can look through another lens, perhaps even feel proud of how far I’ve reached, how much I’ve grown.
This past year, I participated in a unique podcast when I was interviewed, in Hebrew, by an Israeli DJ and read my work, in English, which she set to disco music (apart from my appalling accent, it was a really fun writing experience). Last March, I co-founded a writing community with a friend on the other side of the world to pull myself—and each other—out of lockdown paralysis (and we’re still going strong and open to newcomers). And I’ve pushed myself out of my social-media comfort zone, trying to be a better literary citizen and give where I can give and not just take when I want or need to take.
None of this is meant to boast. My intention is to help those of you who feel down about yourself or your writing life to tally up your year’s accomplishments with different eyes. Another type of re-vision. Did you break into a dream publication? Did you return to writing after a long break? Do you feel happy, satisfied, creatively fulfilled when you approach the blank page? Did you join a writing group? Reach out to a writer you admire? Find someone who believes in your words or supports your work? Did you memorize a favorite poem? It all counts.
As we kick off 2021, my wish for you, and me, and everyone in this community is to write what moves you, what compels you, what makes you feel whole and healthy, and, above all, to stay healthy—mind, body, soul—as the world keeps striking and rebounding. We cannot control how long it will carom, but we can control our reaction. We can re-see our narrative.
Born and bred in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Brevity Blog, and Crab Orchard Review, among other venues. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, Lang holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Find her at israelwriterstudio.com and follow her @JenLangWrites.
January 14, 2021 § 10 Comments
Years ago, I sat backstage at a Renaissance Festival, hot and sweaty after eating fire in the Florida sun. (What really sucks? Fire is harder to see in bright light, so I’d endangered my life to look less impressive than usual.) My partner and I were talking contracts with a more experienced performer (this guy). We were going to ask for more money. I said doubtfully, “I know the management is pretty cheap, but I think we’re worth it?”
Our wiser friend replied, “Nobody gets what they’re worth. You get what you negotiate.”
That saying stuck with me. Bad deals come from bad negotiation—not one’s inherent worth. Good deals reflect the writer and their agent’s negotiating skills as much as the quality of the book. (Good writing gets you in the door; good deals come from negotiation).
For writers, negotiating with a publisher can feel like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But a publishing contract isn’t a gift, it’s a deal. Professional, courteous negotiation doesn’t upset legitimate businesspeople. Anyone getting shirty when you ask for explanations or push back on terms is waving a huge red flag. Trust is for your mother. (Or not, as per many memoirs.)
When you receive your publishing contract, what can you (or your agent) negotiate?
Royalties. Standard royalties are 10-15%. Especially if your advance is smaller, you may be able to do better, perhaps as much as 25% on print books. Even if they won’t shift on print, you could get a higher percentage on ebooks. The standard is 25%, but I’ve seen authors get as much as 50%.
Royalties can also include an “escalator” clause: sell more books, get more money. I arranged an escalator clause for one of the first plays I published: my royalties jumped 5% every 5000 copies sold, topping out at 25%. When I signed, it was an ambitious dream. Twenty years later, the play is still in print.
Subsidiary Rights. Publishers hope to buy worldwide rights, then sell your book to foreign publishers, for which you get royalties. But if your agent sells those rights (or you do, but that’s a longer shot), you’ll deal directly with the overseas publisher and keep a chunk of middleman money. If your publisher retains foreign rights, negotiate for an expiration date. If they have bigger-deal books to focus on and yours goes unsold, you’ll want those rights back for when the opportunity arises to sell them yourself.
You may not be able to keep your audio rights, but you could get the right to audition or even a guaranteed right to be the narrator. (Many authors are terrible narrators; choose wisely!) Audio books could also be at higher royalties than print.
Film rights should always be retained (you never know!). All rights “not named” should be reserved for you, and that’s worth fighting for. Maybe your book will never be a calendar…but it might.
Marketing. In these days of mostly author-driven publicity, it’s more important than ever to get free print and electronic copies. Find out if the publisher uses NetGalley for bloggers, reviewers and the media—can you give your PR list? If you speak at conferences or events, how many copies can you buy for resale, and at what price? First-time authors are unlikely to get cover approval, but you can ask for input.
Process. How long does the publisher have for editorial feedback? What are your deadlines? When will you do last-minute corrections, and will they bill you past a certain number of errors?
Options. Do they have first dibs on the next book you write? If there’s a non-compete clause, negotiate to cover only books “substantially similar and directly competitive,” or you might find yourself unable to sell your next book to another publisher or even self-publish.
Most contracts have flexibility, and it’s always worth negotiating for a better deal. All contracts have unchangeable language about definitions and jurisdiction, but boilerplate rights and financial terms are often sweeping. Like pricing your house 30% above market: maybe someone will pull up with a dump truck full of cash, or maybe you’ll negotiate. Most clauses about money, editing, the actual publishing process, marketing and timelines can be tweaked, or at the very least, fully explained.
If you’re working with a hybrid press, that’s not a publishing deal. You are purchasing a package of services. No matter what they tell you, the costs of publishing your book and their expected minimum profit come from your money. An offer of 50% “royalties” means “As you work to sell your book, we will claim an additional half of your profits.” Make sure your contract specifies what they provide in return. Keep all subsidiary rights. They aren’t going to sell them for you, and if a movie deal drops in your lap, well, you already paid the publisher.
If you’re un-agented, you can negotiate yourself, hire a literary-specific attorney, or take advantage of the Author’s Guild’s legal review services for members (a total bargain! Join here). But you’re allowed to negotiate. You’re not rude or pushy or showing ignorance by asking for an explanation, doing some research and/or talking to your agent, and proposing a better deal. Even after negotiation, you may not get what you’re worth.
Then again? You might get more.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her Friday January 22nd for This Is the Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal Setting for Your 2021 Writing Life in which she will not once say “write every day.”
January 11, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
As the Associate Editor of an online nonfiction magazine, I manage the incoming flow of submissions, and work with a team of 12 smart, capable, and opinionated people to determine which pieces we should publish in the magazine. As we read submissions and try to make thoughtful choices, we come up against a seemingly simple question over and over again – why? When we’re reading submissions from the slush pile, we’re always thinking about the intersection of two critical factors – how skillfully a story is told, and how meaningful that story is, both to the narrator and the reader. Why, we wonder as we read submission after submission, was it important for the writer to tell this story? And why, we yearn to understand, will this matter to our readers?
The factor of skill has been debated and quantified for years, and I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’ve got dozens of books on your shelf that painstakingly outline precisely how to do this well. There are a million ways to go about it, but we can look at our favorite writing – at the online essay that stole our attention last week, at the anthology of flash we return to over and over again – and see these ways at work. We pay money for workshops and degrees that will help us answer this question. We talk about it over email, in writing groups, at conferences.
But that second critical success factor – the work of taking the story of what happened and making meaning of it – or said differently, making the reader understand not just what you are saying, but why you are saying it, is so elusive. It’s personal. It’s deeply intimate. And I’m not sure it can be taught, or explained, or diagrammed.
I’m also fairly certain that in everything I’ve written recently, I haven’t been able to do it.
What does that mean for me as an editor? According to the publishing power dynamics that be, I am in a position to decide what gets accepted by the magazine. I have a team of very thoughtful and diverse individuals who share their amazing insights with me on every single piece that gets submitted, but even with their voices in the mix, the act of choosing what stays and what goes is inherently subjective, and therefore, inherently imperfect. It’s the question I’m sure many editors ask themselves – Who am I to pass judgment? But I’ll add this qualifier – Who am I to pass judgment, especially when I have trouble doing the exact thing that I expect the writers I publish in the magazine to do well?
Perhaps this conundrum is proof (and comforting proof, I hope) that the act of learning how to do a thing well never truly ends, and that the work of seeing, understanding, and recognizing a thing may not be inextricably connected to one’s ability to produce it. In this moment, am I struggling to write things I’m proud of, things that are worthy of a home in online magazines like the one I dedicate my time and effort to? Yes, I am.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t figure it out, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean that i’m incapable of recognizing the elusive, personal, hard to illustrate why in the writing of others. I see it every single day in the slush pile, and I’m reminded that not only is the why attainable, it’s abundant. Meaning is everywhere, if you know where to look for it. And so many writers, whether by sheer universal accident or dogged practice, prove time and time again that they do.
The slush pile is a place that reminds me that in so many cases, experience + distance = meaning. We cannot report on the storm from inside of it, and perhaps that’s what’s at play as I struggle to make meaning in my own work. The year 2020 was its own unique struggle (though I am deeply fortunate to have been less affected than so many others), but inside of that flaming container, I’ve had personal difficulties and demons to grapple with. Grief, heartbreak, depression, anxiety. Things I yearn to make meaning of, but things that ultimately color and influence my ability to do so. They shorten my vision, cutting off the big picture and only allowing me to see the next few steps. They numb my creative fire, tamping it down into an ember that barely keeps me warm.
The truth is, my work as an editor keeps that ember alive. It reminds me that every single day, people are writing and putting themselves out there. Every single day, we get more and more distance between us and the moments and incidents we long to talk about. Regardless of how my own writing continues to develop, I remain romanced, driven, and enchanted by the why, and my team and I make it our mission to elevate the voices of writers who answer it brilliantly.
And perhaps that’s the best way to deactivate the self doubt that has been plaguing me, the frustration I feel at not being able to answer the very question I ask of every submission I read. Perhaps I need to reframe the work I do as an editor, not as picking and choosing or passing judgment on what’s good, but as finding moments of meaning, moments that say something about what it means to be a person in this world, and to shine the biggest light I have access to directly on those moments. To be a steward, a celebrator, a champion. A human and writer and editor who, like everyone else, is in the constant process of learning how to not just recognize a thing, but to do it well. Why not?
Rae Pagliarulo is the Associate Editor of Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living as a resource development consultant. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.
December 18, 2020 § 18 Comments
By Lisa Kusel
A woman in one of my Facebook writing groups recently solicited advice on how best to approach a “rockstar” level person for a blurb, given that she’s a “nobody.” I laughed when I read the post, remembering a time long ago…
…It’s 2005 and my second book/first novel is soon to be released and my editor is all askew with worry that I don’t have any blurbs for its back cover. She’d sent off 30 galleys to A-list writers, but none had yet to respond. I suspected not one of those 30 authors were going to put out.
Why? Mostly because I wasn’t part of the in-crowd. Much like what goes on in Hollywood, it all comes down to who you know, and I knew no one in the literosphere. (If you look at some of the “highly praised” novels on your bookshelf there’s a good chance you’ll see a lot of the same authors passing blurbs back and forth amongst themselves like massages in a college dorm.)
While attempting to secure my own valuations, my editor asked me to blurb a book by one of her authors. I said, “Of course,” since that was the polite thing to do. Ultimately, I found the book—a memoir about growing up on an Indian ashram—a little too self-absorbed. (This, from a writer who would go on to publish a self-absorbed memoir about living in a bamboo hut in Bali). As I needed all the good blurb karma I could round up I opined that the book was “wonderfully entertaining and wholly original.”
Once I realized that said blurb karma wasn’t going to kick in, I emailed A-list author Jennifer Weiner directly. Her (many bestselling) books had little in common with mine other than that they were both pigeon-holed as “chick-lit.” Her reply to my ask was curt, polite, and utterly forgettable. Interestingly, in an essay she wrote nine years later, she decries blurbs but goes on to say how sympathetic she is to blurb-seekers:
It’s hard out there for a new writer. It’s especially hard for new women writers who, statistics tell us, are less likely to get published or reviewed. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to help, why wouldn’t you? I believe in karma, in paying it forward, in using whatever influence I have for good.
Not having been in the path of Weiner’s forward-paying behavior, I began to look further afield. I read a news clip about the actress Emma Thompson who said she adored traveling to Zanzibar. Since my novel takes place almost entirely on the Tanzanian island, I felt it reasonable to ask a famous movie star to blurb a novel by an unknown writer.
As luck would have it, a writer friend of mine knew an agent who knew her agent who generously offered to send the book to her in London. Alas. She didn’t blurb it, but she did mail me a lovely handwritten note on personal stationery. She apologized that she couldn’t find the time to read my book as she was too “snowed under,” but she wished me all the very best.
By the time Emma’s (naturally we’re on a first-name basis) note arrived I’d received three good-enough blurbs: one from a local author whose reading I’d attended. The other two came from lesser-known writers enlisted by my editor. One called my book a “sexy triumph.” The other stated that my “ambitious debut novel brims with heart and heartache.” (My assumption is that they, too, were trying to garner their own blurb karma.)
Did sales of my novel suffer because I didn’t get any rockstar blurbs? Maybe. It also might have been because it’s not a very good novel (please don’t tell my agent I said that). It started out great but then the editor who bought it in the first place left the publishing house for the opportunity to edit Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The new editor eviscerated my plot, wanted more sex, and, well, that part of the story is best left for another time…
So, I will tell that woman in my Facebook writing group that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to getting attention from A-listers. I will point out that it’s not going to be easy to extract blurbs from famous people, but I will encourage her to give it a try. I will remind her that even somebodies were once nobodies and maybe, just maybe, one of them will remember that and actually pay it forward.
Lisa Kusel is the author of Rash, a Memoir, as well as the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the well-blurbed novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. Read more of her essays on her blog and follow her on Instagram.
December 15, 2020 § 16 Comments
Staring at your not-final manuscript? Perhaps you rushed out a first draft in one glorious NaNoWriMo month. Perhaps you’ve slowly pecked away for 10 years. Either way, it’s a rush to finally type “the end” at the conclusion of a draft—you did it! You got there!
But what happens next? Your initial inspiration shines on the page, but you know it’s not “done-done.” How, exactly, does it become the next draft? Start with spellcheck? Get someone else to read it? And how will you know you’ve done all the work you can?
First drafts often spring from the impulsive heart, the burning need to tell what happened. Second—or any subsequent drafts—thrive with work plans.
Depending on how you enjoy writing, and how your best work gets done, your work plan might be a list of tasks or a method of proceeding.
Methodical revisers often start on page one, fixing sentences and scenes from beginning to end. Or they might work chapter by chapter, addressing dramatic arc, voice, theme and structure in each. Addressing multiple issues at once can save time, but it can be hard to see the story forest for the line-editing trees.
I swear by a list. The work plan I use (and recommend to many authors) lets me focus on the whole book, keeping the story in my head while tinkering with scenes and sentences.
1) Outline the story using my dramatic structure of choice. For fiction or action-based memoir, often a traditional 5-act structure. For an essay collection, character-driven literary fiction, or reflective memoir, perhaps a spiral from theme to theme and topic to topic. Business, self-help or a craft/how-to (like my forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book), benefit from a ladder structure showing how each subsequent chapter or concept builds on the previous, and each exercise or reflection asks the reader to branch out at that level.
2) Assess the outline. Are scenes in the right order? Do momentum and knowledge build? Does tension stay tight and reader understanding increase? Is the narrative pace too slow, or the number of things to learn too fast? Revise, moving chunks of text as needed and writing in placeholders for “missing” scenes or material.
3) Fill in any placeholders. Are some moments underwritten because the author got tired that day, or a scene evoked tough emotions? Is research needed to fill in a memory or plot gap?
4) Look at conflict. Does each scene or chapter include conflict between what someone wants and what they can get? Is the conflict between characters, between memoirist-as-narrator and memoirist-as-past-self, between narrator and self, narrator and society, or between the reader and their current beliefs/habits? If every scene includes conflict, where does the reader rest or absorb information? Revise scene by scene, increasing, decreasing or refocusing conflict as needed.
5) Revise scenes to get in late and get out early. Rather than parking the car and walking down the hall and entering the office and sitting down and greeting the boss, open with “You’re fired,” or better yet, standing by the car with a box of desk stuff. Edit scenes to close at or immediately after the moment of impact, with only the reflection needed to convey emotion. Even in “slower” or voice-driven books, make sure the reader’s time is spent loving a character, learning new information, enjoying a beautiful/fascinating/terrifying scene or drawing a powerful conclusion. Edit out filler.
6) Revise most scenes to start and end with a strong action, image or emotional moment. Strong scene/chapter openings and closings create pace. In more leisurely books, that’s where the reader has a moment to add their own thoughts to what you’re about to show them, or slows down to absorb the impact of what they’ve read. In faster books, these moments pull the reader forward with your narrative.
7) Refine the narrative and character voices. For each character, read only their dialogue and narrative. Does it sound like them and not anyone else? If all the dialogue tags vanished, would it still be pretty clear who’s talking? For nonfiction, is author voice clearly and specifically in the narrative? For fiction, does the narrative have a clear point of view?
8) Print the whole manuscript and make additional edits and notes on paper. Use scissors and tape to move anything that still needs to be moved.
Next, my favorite editing technique of all:
9) Instead of editing the existing file, retype the entire manuscript, plus any new edits, into a new file.
When I suggest retyping, writers look at me like I’m asking them to dance naked through the mall with flowers and tambourines. But this technique is powerful. Rewriting gives flow. Your authorial voice can more fully develop, like that great party anecdote you tell. The more you retell the whole thing, the better your timing and delivery get. You may also feel physical resistance at lovingly crafted passages…that don’t belong in this book after all. Plus, we are always the person most interested in our work. If it’s too boring to retype it, it’s too boring for anybody else to read.
This may not be your best work plan, and that’s OK! It’s time-consuming, and if you’re in a hurry, you might prefer something like this One-Pass Revision from Holly Lisle, which covers basically the same steps but with terrifying/awesome speed. The above plan also doesn’t address theme, opening hook, character objective, and other elements you’ll want to revise. But it will get you started, and having a specific, written plan can sustain you through writing days that feel like “work.”
If you try it, let me know how it goes (or if you need a cheer!). Nudity and tambourines optional.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Need more direction on your next draft? Join Allison’s Wednesday webinar all about Second Drafts, including theme, voice, hook and much, much more. More info/sign up here! (recording available if you register but can’t make it live).
December 10, 2020 § 18 Comments
Literary writing is often thought of as character-driven and high-falutin’ but slow-moving. Commercial writing, particularly genre fiction, is seen as plot-driven, faster-paced, and often (wrongly) characterized as easy to write and poorly written.
Is your book snobby or trashy? Your answer determines not only your publication opportunities, but who your readers and writing community are, and what bridges you’ll build to connect with them.
What exactly do you love about your favorite books? Beautiful sentences? They gave you a deeper understanding of the human condition? Or do you more enjoy a relaxed read that only demands you show up to be entertained? Literary and commercial writing both pull you into the author’s created world; both put you in someone else’s shoes. But literary writing makes you work a little harder, read more carefully for meaning. Commercial writing’s power is in events so fascinating, you forget the language itself, and invest in the characters, hoping they get it together—solve the mystery, disarm the bomb, fight the ghost, stop fighting each other—before the end of the book.
Think about your writing goals:
Do you want to draw attention to a larger issue as told through your personal experience? How many people should know about this problem? More than 10000, you probably want to write commercially.
Are you writing genre fiction? Almost certainly commercial.
Does your memoir read like speaking to a friend? Probably commercial unless you naturally have a very elevated voice.
Are you practicing making beautiful sentences, phrasing each word carefully on the page with attention to rhythm and structure? Probably literary.
Does most of your action happen inside the narrator’s head, or in “small” locations like a kitchen or a family home? Likely literary.
Are you pursuing an unusual structure, like a memoir made of a collection of fragments? Literary readers want the challenge of assembling those pieces.
Once you’ve got an idea of whether you’re literary or commercial, what do you DO with that information?
- Literary writers are more likely to be able to query a literary or university press without an agent.
- Commercial writers have a better chance of Big-Five publication, but will need an agent.
- For commercial writers in particular genres, self-publishing can be profitable.
- Both commercial and literary writers can land book deals from “hot essays”— topical pieces that grab public attention beyond the publication’s normal readership. Literary writers are more likely to be discovered in a literary journal or sophisticated mass-media publication like Harper’s or The Atlantic. Commercial writers are more likely to get attention in respected newspapers, women’s magazines like Marie Claire and Glamour, and online publications like Vox and Buzzfeed.
- Literary writers gain traction from attending conferences, MFA programs, and winning literary magazine competitions and prestigious residencies like Yaddo, Hedgebrook or The Macdowell Colony.
- Commercial writers are boosted by social-media engagement, mailing lists and regular mass-media publication.
- Commercial writers are boosted by becoming known experts on particular topics. (Become an expert by reading and researching; become known as an expert by actively sharing knowledge.)
The Actual Writing Part:
- When you’re improving your writing, read books you’d like to be shelved next to. Read them more than once.
- First read: enjoy the book!
- Second read: what’s the author doing technically in the voice, structure and story of the book? Can you see their writing choices on the page?
- Are you doing the same things in your work? Are you learning to do them better?
If you’re a literary writer, your number-one responsibility is to write an amazing book. Then help your book sell by committing to publishing in literary journals or prestigious mass media (it’s a long game!). Connect with other literary writers (including your workshop teachers). Actively improve your writing by taking classes if you can afford it, and/or rigorously analyzing books to learn how to do what they do, in your own voice and style. You’re going to need to be as good as the worst book you’ve ever bought, and ideally a lot better.
Commercial writers? You’ve got a lot to do. Genre fiction writers need a compelling book with a great concept and then a slog through the query trenches or a solid self-publishing plan. Commercial memoirists need platform. As you write, cultivate your audience. Who needs to hear what you have to say? Where are they? Engage in those communities. Ideally, by the time your memoir is finished, you’ll have fans so in love with your words, they can’t wait to buy your book for more.
Crossovers—often called “upmarket” or “book club”—books are a thing, too. Kate Atkinson and Hilary Mantel both have bodies of very literary work that reads (and sells) like commercial fiction. And of course, all writers need a strong understanding of plot and structure, and how to hook readers from the first page.
Literary writing is usually more beautiful at the sentence level—but literary writers must work hard to sustain reader interest through a quieter plot. Commercial writing is often more interestingly plotted—but commercial writers must still show quality writing sentence by sentence.
Neither path is superior. But choosing one will help you make other writing-career choices. Writing and publishing are time-consuming and overwhelming. Actively picking your path will be a smoother walk—with the companions you need along the way, and your readers waiting at your destination.
December 8, 2020 § 21 Comments
When I was working on my book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I was writing for my younger self and to other young women like me, or like I had been—women in their twenties and early thirties, who are in the process of finding themselves, of becoming. I wanted my book to function as a guide, or rather an anti-guidebook of sorts, a map of what not to do. I wanted these young women to see the mistakes I had made, so they wouldn’t need to the same ones themselves.
My advanced reader copies went out, and even though I shouldn’t have, I wanted to see how people were responding, so I looked at Goodreads. Other writers told me not to. They said, “Goodreads is for readers, not writers.” One writer told me that what readers think of my book is none of my business.
They were right, of course. But I thought, I’m a reader, too!
There were a number of reviews that didn’t like that the essays aren’t arranged in chronological order. A few men didn’t like my narrator, which was to be expected because I was writing about a woman trying to get out from underneath the male gaze and learning to be the subject of her own desire. Any story that subverts the patriarchal order is bound to be met with a bit of disdain—I counted this as a win.
What I wasn’t expecting was the vitriol from young women—not all young women, of course, but some of them hated the book and seemed especially mad at me for writing it. One young woman wrote a 1,200 word-review, twice as long as this post. These women, the very ones I thought I was penning a love letter to, were very passionate, indeed, but in their anger.
One young woman wondered if my younger self really did all those “stupid things” or if I was just “making it up” to sell books. Let me be clear: I wasn’t making it up. And yes, I really was that stupid.
Certainly, I could have just written a terrible book with an asshole narrator.
But I wondered why they would finish the book if they hated it (and me) so much and then take to Goodreads and spend a lot more time thinking and writing about a book they couldn’t stand.
During this same time, middle-aged and much older women started writing to me, gushing about how much they loved the book. They saw their younger selves, their own missteps, and they said that though they may not want to admit it, they could relate. They thanked me for putting their struggles into words. The mirror I held up to them showed their much younger selves and the ways that they had reckoned with their mistakes, helping them grow into the powerful women they now were.
I went back and noticed in the negative reviews, readers wrote more about themselves and their experiences in relation to the book. My book, it seemed, had held a mirror up to the reader, and some of these young women didn’t like what they saw.
I often tell my students to think about their audience, and I still think that’s good advice. Write to a specific someone in your mind. But now I’ll add this: you might be wrong about that specific someone, but that’s okay.
Sometimes the book is smarter than the writer. And your love letter may be unrequited, but someone else will find it, someone who needs it. And it doesn’t matter who that is, because you have done your work. You have written your book. And in the end, what the reader thinks about it is none of your business.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the travel essay collection Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University.
December 7, 2020 § 29 Comments
By Chelsey Drysdale
In the past five years, I’ve queried 89 literary agents. I will query 11 more to reach my goal of 100. Then I may quit. Querying is taxing, and my manuscript garnered the most interest early on when it wasn’t ready. Now that it’s improved, my inbox is empty.
I queried one agent in person and five from referrals. I queried agents who represent similar memoirs and memoirs I love. I queried agents who request “unusual and offbeat,” “idiosyncratic,” and “voice-driven memoirs with morally complicated situations,” and hands-on agents who relish in the collaborative editorial process, hoping the caliber of my work rivals my fervent work ethic.
One agent said my manuscript wasn’t the right fit but asked if I had another one. (I didn’t.) The agent I pitched in person said, “This is exactly what I’m looking for.” Then her father died. One agent requested an entirely new draft. (Our visions didn’t align.) One agent called my project “fabulous” but not for him, and one was downright rude.
Any feedback is delightful. One agent “would have asked for pages 20 years ago.” She was “drawn to my self-deprecation.” She said I needed a “younger agent” who would “find the right home” for my book. It was a rare clue in what often feels like decoding witchcraft. I almost cried from renewed hope.
I scoured online advice and craft texts about query letters and book proposals. I revised both more times than I colored my hair. I learned to embrace the process, as I can’t change the outcome. I published essays, each time thinking, “Maybe this is the one.”
But, like mourning my unborn children when I was 40, I now grasp I may never publish the memoir I spent six years toiling over. I may never approve cover art I still can’t envision. I may never be “in conversation” with another author. I may never be interviewed on a podcast. I may never see my name on the billboard outside Powell’s. I may never be seen the way I want to be seen. It’s heartbreaking.
Once, on a hiatus from researching agents, I queried eight independent presses with no response. On a long enough timeline, I believed publishing my memoir was probable, even if that meant selling it to a tiny indie pub without an agent. I was naive.
The latest iteration of my proposal is the result of an epiphanous workshop. I merged sections, rewriting them as essays to showcase my voice. I chose fresh comp titles. I tweaked the marketing copy. I explained why my memoir is relevant to the culture today. I returned to the thought, “Maybe this is the one.” The problem with having a timely proposal is it’s timely, so if the query crickets chirp for six more months, the proposal needs revising again.
Querying is grueling in part because every agent has specific requirements, so every submission is specially tailored (as it should be). Agents want queries with three paragraphs; queries with four paragraphs; queries with 2,000 maximum characters; a query that’s no more than two pages; a one-page synopsis; a two-page synopsis; a complete outline; a marketing statement; the first chapter; two sample chapters; three sample chapters; a manuscript sample with 10,000 maximum characters; the first five pages; the first 10 pages; a proposal excerpt (which part?); the first five pages of the proposal; the full proposal written per their guidelines, using their online submission form (never quite the same as the others); the full proposal as an attachment; the full proposal pasted into the body of an email. (My current proposal is 40 pages, not counting sample chapters. That’s a long email.)
Agents are interested in “big social media platforms.” Others believe “Q & As and Skype book club appearances are more important than social media.” Some agents have no discernible requirements at all. Some agencies advise querying only one agent. Others say querying a second agent at the same house is okay after eight weeks.
I queried newbies building their clientele, veterans with 30 years’ experience, and agents with whom I’d been told I’d gel. I followed up after eight weeks. I didn’t follow up at all. I queried agents for so long some of them moved agencies or started their own. I crossed an agent off my list when I found her obituary. I researched houses I already researched. I read agent interviews, bylines, websites, Twitter feeds, and Manuscript Wish Lists. I queried agents with no web presence. I once met an agent I’d already queried, and she called me “Crystal.” All the while, I’ve tried to build some semblance of a platform. With every conference, book fair, reading, and face-to-face chat (back when those existed), I wondered, “Maybe this is the one.”
Thankfully, there are pluses to shelving a memoir: If I never publish it, I’ll never have to speak to my ex-husband again. (Bonus!) I won’t be tempted to read cruel amateur “takes” on Goodreads. I won’t worry if there are no reviews. I won’t have anxiety if strangers judge me. (“They will. Get over it,” one author said.) I won’t fret about earning out an advance. I won’t be sad when my book isn’t on any best-of lists. I won’t anger That One Guy I Dated That One Time because I said something unflattering about him. I won’t expose anyone whose personal stories are inextricably linked to mine. Secrets will remain secrets. Given the choice, though, I’d risk it all to connect with readers.
Maybe it’s almost time to sideline my first manuscript. In the past year, I’ve written 26,000 words of a novel. Maybe when I finish the novel, it will be the one. Maybe I’ll sell my memoir after the novel. Maybe I’ll get a two-book deal. Maybe I’ll have two manuscripts in a drawer. In any case, I will still write. Maybe, like being an aunt instead of a parent, that’s enough. Maybe it has to be.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, The HerStories Project, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
October 22, 2020 § 24 Comments
My friend, a fellow writer, waved for help.
A literary journal had just rejected her short story. The editor’s comments troubled her. She wanted to know what we had to say, the seven of us in the same cherished writers’ group.
“I’m usually eager to take an editor’s advice,” she told us, “but if I try to fix what the editor identified as problem areas, I risk losing the tone and voice I was going for.”
We knew her story—about a woman who meets a 13-year-old boy for the first time in tragic circumstances—having shared our feedback weeks earlier. “It’s ready,” we told her. “Put it out there.”
But the editor found the woman’s “awkwardness” with the boy “unconvincing.”
“Send me the story,” I said. “I’ll re-read it while standing in the editor’s shoes.”
Which I did.
The editor’s shoes did not fit.
I could not detect in the female character one grain of awkwardness. Quite the opposite. I saw a woman with a hardscrabble past and a broken relationship with her parents, who likes this 13-year-old kid all right, but feels no need to cater to him. She observes him closely and speaks to him like an adult. Casually serves him his first-ever cup of coffee. Lights a cigarette, because she is simply being herself, with no apologies.
The boy responds in kind. He makes no extra effort to impress her. He navigates the encounter on its own terms.
In the poignant final scene, the woman delivers, in practical, straight-up terms, some hard-won advice. Topped out with emotion, the kid promises to heed her warning.
I liked the woman’s cool demeanor. Her honesty. Her brusque talk. “She relates to the kid with respect and authenticity,” I reported to my friend. “She’s raised him to her level instead of talking down.”
I spoke the words many a conflicted writer yearns to hear: “Pay no attention to the editor.”
But I had missed something crucial.
A fellow colleague—another professional editor—saw the female character as emotionally stunted because of her own dysfunctional childhood and therefore unable to engage “appropriately” with the kid.
I was dumbfounded. What was going on here? Why was my interpretation so unlike theirs?
I read the story again.
A divine light did not shine down on me. I could not see the woman as flawed.
My friend, the writer, came to my rescue.
“You were an only child and your parents spoke to you as an adult,” she said, drawing on what she knew from chapters from my manuscript. “So that’s what you picked up. And you weren’t wrong. Your own experience pointed to it being a plus, and not awkwardness.”
Holy Hannah. She was right. I’d had a plain-dealing mother with a traumatic past who prided herself on delivering hard truths with no regard for any age I might be, using the full range of her Latinate vocabulary. I didn’t mind. It was just how things were done.
On some unexamined level, I knew readers brought their own background and experience to a story. But now I had witnessed myself responding in real time, in a way completely at odds with two other respected writers.
My next thought was, My feedback had failed my friend.
“Nope,” she told me. “That’s the beauty of having different people look at a piece of writing. Everyone sees something different.”
Fair enough. But wouldn’t competing takes on a narrative confuse a writer?
“It doesn’t matter what was in my mind when I wrote the story,” said my friend, echoing Beth Kephart in her luminous Brevity craft essay, Circus Act. “Once we release our art to the world, it doesn’t belong to us anymore.”
But if I’m supposed to be providing actionable feedback, don’t I have an obligation to switch off my personal lens, so as not to throw the writer off her game?
“Why would you want to switch it off?” asked my friend, whom I was appreciating more and more by the minute. “Bring on the different perspectives. Your opinion may differ from everyone else’s, but that difference is important.”
Besides, I had just proved that finding this particular off-switch was, for me at least, impossible.
And that’s when another piece of familiar wisdom snapped like a magnet to my frontal lobe—something I’d reminded others of a million times, almost as if I knew what I was talking about.
From writer and creativity mentor Austin Kleon: “Take what you can use, and leave the rest.”
My friend ended up passing on both the editor’s feedback, and mine. She gave what both of us had to say due consideration, but ultimately what we told her didn’t fit. She knew, when faced with conflicting interpretations of her work, that her only obligation was to herself.
As readers, we have a similar freedom.
Our obligation as reviewers is to share our unique perspective with an open heart.
To hope that we will crack a window for the writer, and to accept if we do not—in the spirit of the wild, free, creative winds that press for entry at the windows of all writers.
Best of all, to enjoy her story exactly the way my life and temperament led me to interpret it.
Heidi Croot is an award-winning business writer, published in numerous trade publications. Her creative writing has appeared in Linea magazine and the WCDR anthology Renaissance and has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and others. She lives in beautiful Northumberland County, Canada, and is working on a memoir.
October 8, 2020 § 22 Comments
Perhaps your manuscript is as good as you can make it…but you’d like a second opinion. Or maybe you know something isn’t quite clicking…but you’re not sure what. Maybe you’ve heard a fellow writer say, “My editor pointed out issue X and everything fell into place! I still have a lot of work to do, but I know where I’m going.” Maybe you’re getting rejections and you don’t know why your book isn’t landing with agents or publishers.
Most authors reach a draft where they can’t improve their manuscript further without high-level outside input. More thorough or more sophisticated critique than even your best writer friends have time to give. It’s time to call in a big favor…or spend money.
If your literary citizenship has included reading for friends and acquaintances, promoting and reviewing their books, and staying in touch with workshop colleagues and teachers, you may have a free or low-cost reader available. A writer you trust, whose work you believe is more polished than yours. Maybe the classmate who gave the best feedback to everyone else. Someone who doesn’t love everything you write—praise is not useful at this time.
Ask in a way that makes it easy to say no, and that suggests you’re prepared to compensate them appropriately for their expertise.
I don’t know what your schedule is like right now, but do you do manuscript reads? And if so, do you have a regular rate?
They might say, “I’d love to read your work, just send it along,” in which case you send a heartfelt thank-you note and review everything they ever write in as many online locations as you can. Or they’ll quote a price and you can decide if they’re within your budget.
A free or low-cost reader needs your request for feedback to be as specific as possible. You might ask 5-10 questions like, “Does the main character’s emotional journey pay off at the end?” or “Can you please highlight things you think I can cut?”
High-level critique also comes from professional editors. A good editor will help you make your book the best you can write, and much readier for querying, submissions or self-publishing. Unlike your friend doing you a favor, you’ll have a specific due date and a clear scope of work.
If you’ve explored hiring a professional editor, you may have noticed one key element: Good editors are EXPENSIVE. House payment-expensive. International airline ticket-expensive. Sometimes even refundable business class-expensive. Editing is skilled, high-level work that should dramatically increase the sellability of your book, and it costs accordingly.
Editors may bill a set project fee, hourly (with an estimate), or per-word. Some charge per page, but a “standard” page is 250 words so that’s functionally per-word. These prices are usually based on how much time your manuscript needs. Send the cleanest manuscript you can. Pages with fewer typos and grammatical errors take less time; you’ll also get more bang for your buck if the editor spends her time on issues you couldn’t see or fix yourself.
You can also save money on editing by reducing your word count. The more unnecessary words you remove on your own, the less a full edit will cost. Here’s how to slim down your story without losing what’s important:
1) Many memoirs (and novels!) start too late. Send pages 50-75 to someone who hasn’t read the book. Ask what they know about the story and the narrator. Cut those details out of the first 50 pages. Ask what they wish they knew. See if you can move those things out of the first 50 pages and put them in later, but smaller. I’ve had several editorial clients who cut their first 50 pages because the story hadn’t started yet. Especially if it was a big chunk of family history.
2) Send only the first 25 pages (now possibly your revised pages 50-75) for professional editing. Problems at the beginning are almost certainly problems through the whole book. Ask for a list of what to fix, then address those issues in the rest of the book before sending off your entire manuscript. If your memoir is over 85K words, ask specifically about reducing length. (If your manuscript is under 60K, ask what you’re missing that needs to be added in.)
3) Do a Word Cloud (I like Wordle) to see overused words. Remove/substitute as needed.
4) Search for that, very, really, beginning to/began to, starting to/started to, and continued and take out half to two-thirds of each.
Words add up. Developmental edit on an 85K manuscript at 4 cents/word? $3400. Cut 4000 words of extra subplot, 4800 words of excess description and 200 appearances of very and really? You just saved $400.
Before committing to working with a professional or other high-level reader, do as much as you can alone. Join a writing group, trade manuscripts with a writer buddy. Before you send your pages or manuscript, read through one more time. Knowing that feedback is imminent, more issues will stick out. It’s possible you’ll solve your own problem. It’s also possible you’ll still need an edit.
Editing is not a magic cure. Your book still may be unpublishable. Your writing may not be ready. But a good editor will not just polish this book—her feedback will teach you more about writing, and your next book will start at a higher level of craft.
And if what you’re struggling with is structure? Check out my webinar October 21st: Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s only $25—no matter what your word count is.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. October 21st, she’ll be teaching how to structure a memoir to engage readers, agents and publishers. What’s an “inciting incident” or a “climax” when you’re looking at real life? How to decide what events belong in your book? Suitable for those with an idea, a draft, or a terrifying pile of material, you’ll discover how to tell the right story about the story you need to tell. Sign up here.