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 § 7 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

______

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.

Writing and Thinking “Outside of the Box:” A Class Action Lawsuit

April 6, 2022 § 3 Comments

By Boaz Dvir

A West Jefferson, Ohio, cardboard box has filed a class action lawsuit against tens of millions of Americans, citing defamation, libel, slander, reputational damage, separation anxiety, social phobia, externalist angst, agoraphobia, panic disorder, PTSD, ADHD, and FOMO.

Filed at a US District Court in Columbus, Ohio, the suit claims that the use, misuse, overuse, and bludgeoning-to-death uber-utilization of the phrase “think out of the box” has caused irreparable harm to Box 7821 and 9,240,524,378 other cardboard containers that have joined in this legal bout.

The 9,240,524,379 boxes seek an injunction against the use of this “shopworn shibboleth” by anyone, anywhere, anytime, for any reason. Yes, even in the hallowed institutions of capitalism.

“I cringed the first time I heard this counterproductive catchphrase,” said Box 7821, a multilayered corrugated fiberboard with a fetching fold at the edge of one of its side panels. “By the 100th time, I collapsed. By the 1000th, I was totally crushed. By now, I’ve had it up to my slots. Why do humans insist on recycling these flattening terms? Why can’t they think outside the box?”

The boxes’ suit has sent shockwaves through corporate boardrooms, political headquarters, marketing departments, entrepreneurial retreats, and think tanks.

“If this suit prevails, market leaders will have to conjure up new ways to instill out-of-the-box thinking among their employees,” a CNBC/MSNBC/NBCUniversal/Peacock analyst said. “In a twist of irony, they themselves will be forced to finally and truly think outside the box.”

Although most of the defendants have yet to think in or out of the box about the suit, some have stepped up to shoot it down.

“I have nothing against most boxes, as long as they keep their flaps shut,” said a Boise, Idaho, resident as she brought in Amazon packages after letting them sit on her front porch for just 12 days (down from the previous 12 weeks) as part of her relaxed COVID-19 safety protocols. “Some of my best deliveries arrive in boxes. I recycle. I never draw evil, ugly faces on them or anything.”

The reporter pointed at an evil, ugly face drawn on the side of an Amazon box perched on the Boise resident’s porch swing. At first, the Boise resident called this observation “fake news.” Then she blamed her “young, impressionable son.” But this middle-aged adult said he stopped drawing after catching his mom tossing his childhood art into a burning fireplace.

Finally, the Boise resident pointed her finger at her dog. But the Chihuahua claimed its innocence by barking incessantly and flashing its tiny teeth at the sketch, which some might say resembles Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s soul.

“Fine,” the Boise resident said, “you drew it out of me. I felt boxed in, OK?”

Her dissatisfaction was echoed by a Crystal River, Fla., homeowner wearing a “Prevent the 2024 Steal” T-shirt and shooting box panels with an assault rifle in her back yard.

“Boxes are a key part of the conspiracy to control the American people,” the Crystal River sharpshooter yelled during target-practice internals. “We should alter this line of verbal propaganda into ‘out with the boxes!’”

Yet other defendants called for understanding and compromise.

“We gotta stop saying the same thing over and over and expecting different responses,” said a San Francisco studio-apartment-renter from his van phone as he drove solo across the country. “We gotta start thinking out of the box.”

(The reporter did her best to capture this quote from the San Francisco studio-apartment-renter. But he was hard to hear because he insisted on wearing a mask despite driving alone in his loud diesel van.)

Accepting the San Francisco studio-apartment-renter’s olive branch, Box 7821 said, “I gotta welcome attempts at compromise. They show that outta-box thinking is possible.”

The reporter asked if it’s hypocritical for boxes to use this phrase. But Box 7821 said they’re reappropriating it.

“Just as Jewish comedians took back ‘Jewish,’” Box 7821 said, “and heterosexual white men now own ‘bro,’ we need to reclaim ‘think out of the box.’”

Box 7821’s attorneys asked the US District Court in Columbus to expedite the proceedings. They noted that the plaintiff lives a couple of miles from Amazon Fulfillment Center CMH4 and could find itself rolling down an assembly line at any moment.

The reporter advised Box 7821 to refuse deliveries to Crystal River and Boise.

Waging battle on several fronts, Box 7821 has filed a trademark, secured all related URLs, and hired a bevy of social media influencers to “de-cool-nize” the expression.

Another, unnamed box praised Box 7821’s courage.

“I’m awestruck,” the box said, “seeing a box not just thinking but also acting out of the box.”

Legal experts said this suit may inspire others to act. Fruits have scheduled a meeting later this season to marinate over pulverizing the overripe slogan “grab the low-hanging fruit.”

“We thought that in this era, y’all would cease with the grabbin’,” a Marshallville, Ga., peach told the reporter. “But even now as we speak, I can see that you’re fixin’ to grab me. This terminology also promotes a hierarchical structure that runs counter to our sweet disposition.”

(The reporter confirmed that the peach was indeed delicious.)

Flagpoles are also standing tall in their opposition to the “idiotic idiom” of “run it up the flagpole.”

“Only thing we want running up our pole is a US or a state flag,” said an American-and-New-Mexico-flags-hoisting flagpole in Albuquerque. “What you see is not us waving you in to spew your bad ideas and toxic feedback but waving you off.”

At the same time, pins have shelved a proposal to do something about “put a pin in it” and candles say they’re too busy to deal with “burning the candle at both ends.”

“I don’t have time for this meshugaas,” a Staten Island Shabbos candle said. “I’m burning the candle at both ends over here.”

Box 7821 encouraged the candles and pins to think differently.

“And until our trademark comes through,” Box 7821 said, “I’ll just leave it at that.”

___
Award-winning filmmaker Boaz Dvir’s films have been distributed by PBS, Hulu, Amazon Prime, The New York Times and other outlets. An assistant professor at Penn State, Dvir teaches journalism and directs the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative, which trains educators to effectively teach difficult topics. Dvir’s critically acclaimed nonfiction book, Saving Israel (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), follows World War II aviators’ secret mission to prevent what they viewed as a second Holocaust.

Quiz: Is It a Critique from The Great British Baking Show or a Response from a Literary Magazine?

April 1, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Lori Barrett

Can you guess which of the statements below are from judges sampling baked goods and which are from editors sampling my writing?

This piece is not for me, but I like the way you [write/bake].

I worry about this one. First off, it’s very thin.

This [pastry/story] sparked a discussion among our [judges/editors].

It’s a real mess, isn’t it?

There are some clever beats here, but I think this could use a stronger through line. 

Sometimes simplicity is a way forward. This is taking it a little bit too far.

Really loved this. It’s depressing in all the right ways.

Nice and boozy.

We do have a few ideas for edits.

It didn’t quite have that twist of the weird we’re looking for.

All the elements are there, but there’s nothing else.

We know that [baking/writing] is hard, and we support your work.

It’s sort of squidgy at the sides.

At the very least, we can let you know why we didn’t accept it, so that you can understand our tastes better.

This is just goo.

This is fun, but I’m afraid we aren’t going to take it.

It’s slightly overbaked.

Despite its strengths, it has not been selected.

It holds together well.

We appreciated the [taste/read], but we’re sorry to say we are unable to use this.

It’s… um … overdecorated.

Our having to decline this may be because we have work similar to the work you present here.

The top is very sloppy.

We did find much to admire in your work, but …

It’s a bit pudding-y to be honest.

Answers: Sorry! I baked a boozy cake to distract myself from the steady flow of rejections, and now I have no recollection of which is which.
____

Lori Barrett is a writer living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Salon, Necessary Fiction, Barrelhouse online, Paper Darts, and the Wall Street Journal. She has participated in Chicago’s live lit events That’s All She Wrote and Tuesday Funk. She serves as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.

The Third Way: Publishing Without an Agent

March 3, 2022 § 32 Comments

By Suzanne Roberts

Anyone who grew up around the time I did suffered through a number of school-sanctioned terrors; one such terror was dodgeball. I was one of the weaklings who could not dodge the ball fast enough. The school bullies always aimed for my face to see if they could smash my glasses. Sometimes they did. I have heard this game is now banned at schools around the country.

But even worse was the way teams were picked. Two captains took turns picking their team, one by one, while the rest of us waited to hear our names.

My name always came dead last.

I bring this up because our childhood shame resurfaces when we feel unwanted or rejected as adults, and I’ve watched this play out in a number of writers’ groups on Facebook. There’s a theme among those who are sending agent queries. In a word, these writers are bereft. Querying agents makes them hate writing. Or they’re about to give up and self-publish.

I’m here to say that you don’t have to choose between querying agents and self-publishing—there’s a third way. My writing career has depended on publishing with an independent press. I’ve published seven books with independent presses, and though I’ll never end up on bestseller lists, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive.

Disclaimer: I could never self-publish because I have a severe case of imposter syndrome; I very much need someone else to be the gatekeeper. After publishing four poetry books with tiny literary presses, I queried a memoir, Almost Somewhere to over 100 agents. Ten or twelve requested the full manuscript; I spoke to several on the phone. One said she very much liked my book but couldn’t sell it because I was “untested in the market.” She said, “You know poetry doesn’t count, right?”

Talk about a dodgeball to the face.

For the most part, the agents I spoke to were kind. I could tell they liked my book but knew the market better than I did, and mine wasn’t a book they could sell to a commercial press. Many authors will hear this, and it’s easy to feel rejected, but thinking about publishing as a business—which it very much is—helps. Maybe you have written a very good book, a brilliant book even, a book that readers need. That’s a very different thing than an agent knowing a book will sell enough copies to make it a worthwhile investment for a commercial press.

I sent Almost Somewhere to the University of Nebraska Press, and they agreed to publish it. My advance was zero (which made me laugh when anyone called it a “book deal”). Yet my book sold through the first printing before release, date and  13,481 copies in the 10 years since—not counting audiobooks or translations. For a commercial press, those numbers are tiny. For a university press, they’re excellent.

 After Almost Somewhere was published, an agent approached me. I was thrilled. And of course, I already had another book (or two) I was working on. Someone was picking me for her team! But the gap between her and my vision for a second book was too large. She kept calling my memoir a novel (her list was mostly women’s upmarket fiction, which wasn’t what I was writing). We parted ways, and I sent my next two books, Bad Tourist and Animal Bodies, to Nebraska. Every time, it’s been a good fit.

I’m nearly finished with another memoir, one that may or may not have “market potential.” How do I know? That’s not my job, so I’m not thinking about it just yet. If I query agents again, I’m not going to let it make me hate writing. The joy has always been in the process of writing and revising sentences the best way I know how. Sure, it would be nice to have someone help manage my career, another person who is invested in my work (since my mother and my dog are both dead). But I’m not going to stand around on the blacktop waiting for my name to be called.

I won’t let my childhood shame seep into writing life, even though at times, rejection feels like the slap of that hard ball on skin. I’ve been doing this long enough to know the writer’s life is full of rejection. I tell my students that even when their books come out, there’s always something more to lose: not getting reviews, not making “most-anticipated” lists, not winning awards, not selling many books. So the best thing they can do—that we can all do—is to focus on the one thing we control: the writing itself.

____________________________________

Suzanne Roberts is the author Animal BodiesOn DeathDesireand Other DifficultiesBad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel and Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, 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.

Why Your Essay Got Rejected

February 24, 2022 § 30 Comments

Last month I responded to 113 essays and book beginnings. A fraction of what a literary magazine might see in submissions; a lot for me to comment on. Nobody got a form rejection, because the pages were for a webinar—What’s Wrong with this Work: Turning Rejections into Publications—and the learning was the point. The authors listed their previous rejections from literary magazines, mass media, websites and agents, as many as 35 rejections for a single essay.

I hadn’t expected so many submissions. About 50 had arrived, and I’d been on a roll, picking pieces to edit live while screen-sharing during the webinar, and thought “Sure, I can do one comment on everyone!” Then the coordinator sent a reminder email. I wasn’t publicly committed to 113 responses—officially, I needed 2-5 volunteers—but I’m glad I plowed through them all, because I needed to know this and so do you:

It’s probably not your writing.

By “your writing” I mean sentence-level prose. The ability to frame a paragraph, write a rounded character, show setting and imply backstory. Almost every essay was well-written, from competently to marvelously. I only told two writers: “Consider working with a writing group or taking a class to improve your craft—your story is bigger than your ability to tell it right now.”

So why were they getting rejected? For that matter, why are you? And what can you do about it?

Topic

Many well-written pieces made a good point but didn’t say anything new. Writing about the pandemic, cancer, addiction, aging parents or cultural racism? Your angle must be something we haven’t heard many times before—and/or your writing must be incredibly moving or incredibly funny. The world doesn’t want another “sorry about being a white lady” piece. Sorry.

For memoirs, most opening pages lacked cultural relevance. How does your story intersect with the larger world now? What makes your book more than a family album?

Fix this: Read widely in the publication you want to be in and in your genre. What’s already being talked about? How can you add to the conversation? Make your fresh angle or new insights clear from the first page.

Story/Stakes/Change

Many essays with strong concepts lacked a dramatic arc. The stakes weren’t clear. A series of observations showed another person’s character, or the narrator retold past events without a clear choice in the present. “Slice of life” pieces portrayed a particular family or group, but read as charming collections of characters rather than a personal journey for anyone.

Fix this: Ask of your essay, “What’s my state at the beginning? What’s my state at the end? What made me change and where in the essay does that moment of realization happen?” If you can’t put your finger on a sentence showing change, you don’t have a story.

Style of Writing/Where It Was Submitted

Literary essays had been rejected by mass media. Essays with the style and tone of mass media had been rejected from literary magazines. I could see why the authors were confused—they had strong writing and great stories! But they were trying to wear a ballgown to change the oil. Great dress, wrong place.

Fix this: Pick three recent pieces from your chosen publication. Analyze paragraph by paragraph. Where is the premise established? What’s an active scene and what’s imagery or reflection? Does the writer give advice, tell personal anecdotes, reference needed cultural change? That’s mass media. Crying at the end but you’re not sure why? Literary all the way. Now analyze your own work: do you see similar components to the published pieces?

Confusing Openings

When too many names, places or events show up in the first few paragraphs, the reader gets confused before they get oriented. They’re trying to track who or what will be important, and they don’t yet have the background to care about anyone.

Fix this: Count the nouns. Seriously. People, places, things. How many concrete things are in your opening? If there are more than three proper nouns, three objects or one location, make sure you have a specific reason to put them there…and that it’s working.

Opening with Death

I’ve seen many memoirs open with a loved one’s death, then flashback to fill in the story. But we don’t know why the person you’re mourning matters! You’re asking the reader to attend a stranger’s funeral and fully empathize with the chief mourner.

Fix this: The death was a big event…but this is still your story. Where does your journey begin? Start there.

Length

Not many magazines take essays over 5000 words, and not many readers want to soldier through one. Most mass media essays are 900-2000 words, with the sweet spot around 1500. Most literary magazines take work up to about 25 double-spaced pages. Over 5000 words is long for personal essay that’s not deeply researched or culturally situated, and you’ll probably need previous publication credits in big-name, similar journals, or even a shorter piece in the same magazine.

Fix this: If your story’s big, make a choice: either tell sections of it in a couple of shorter essays; or write the whole book.

Rejection is often not “bad writing.” Often, the submission is a mismatch with the venue, the opening is muddy or the overall point isn’t clear, or someone’s narrating their family album. You can fix this. Why not pick your favorite piece without a home, and fix it now?

Want more of Allison’s writing advice? Join the upcoming webinar Writing Memoir for YA and Middle Grade, with tips and techniques for learning the market, writing a captivating memoir, and getting published.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

I’d Be Grateful for Your Blurb: Making the Ask (a little) Less Awkward

February 3, 2022 § 15 Comments

By Mallory McDuff

Oprah. Terry. Cheryl. Janisse. Brené. Liz.

It took ten seconds to write their first names on a blank index card, as if I were brainstorming party invites or recalling past lovers. I was a member of their virtual paparazzi, following these famous authors on social media, not to suck up, but because I thought of myself as a close friend of their work.

When my editor later reminded me of the deadline for endorsements for my book, Our Last Best Act, about revising my final wishes with climate and community in mind—I started with my pie-in-the-sky list. Typing out the names, I used the heading “long shots.”

“I realize this list is aspirational,” I wrote, apologetically. “So I’ve included writers within my reach in bold.”

The word “blurb” was first used by the late humorist Gelett Burgess, whose 1907 book cover featured a photo of a woman he named “Miss Belinda Blurb,” shouting affirmations. These days the requisite “ask” can feel like a request to sit at the adult table.

My list included climate experts, writers specializing in grief, practitioners of green burial, and those long-shot authors and influencers. Blending memoir with on-the-ground research, my book stemmed from the tragic mirror-image deaths of my parents—and my father’s lifelong intention to have a funeral that relied on family and friends without harm to the Earth.

I’d spent a year researching end-of-life options like conservation cemeteries, aquamation, death doulas, green burial, home funerals, and even human composting. My 15 and 22-year old daughters gave input about each choice, since they would have to implement my plan.  

So the story was personal. But as a professor of environmental education and a single mom in the mountains of North Carolina, I didn’t have time during the pandemic to get existential or insecure about asking for blurbs. The process became relational, small points of connection for the long haul. Here’s what I learned that made the task feel a little less awkward:

Rejection now might lead to connection later.

While I didn’t hear back from Oprah or Cheryl Strayed, I received lovely rejection notes from several well-known authors or their PR people. Making a human connection felt like a win, even if it didn’t result in a blurb. One writer hadn’t responded to my e-mails, yet she discovered my request in her inbox months later and asked me to be a guest on her podcast. A climate scientist who declined to blurb offered to share my book on social media. Given her platform, I considered her offer a win.

Social media can be a viable way to engage and even follow up.

I’m a social media addict who doesn’t own a smartphone—for a reason. But communication with authors on social media was a vital way to connect, through comments about their posts but also direct messages. Long before writing this book, I’d been an authentic presence on their feeds. Literary citizenship felt like a positive use of time online.

Endorsers may give critical feedback before the book goes to print. 

One of my endorsers who was an expert in green burial also sent three pages of single-spaced feedback, which were vital for my final edits. While I would have loved her suggestions earlier in the editing process, her input at that stage still proved invaluable.

Our shared humanity connects us—even in the awkward practice of asking for blurbs.

One of my dream endorsers wrote me at 10:30 pm as I graded papers on my laptop in bed. That night, we exchanged messages about the challenges faced by our teens in pandemic times, the struggles that held our hearts much more than a blurb or a book launch. I’ll never forget the last line of her e-mail that night: Drink some tea. Go for a walk. Take care of yourself.

Another A-game writer couldn’t commit to a blurb until she read the entire book. The hard copy arrived at her home the weekend before her family planned to gather with her elderly father—to talk about his final wishes. None of my strategic lists or Instagram fangirl comments could have anticipated the depth of that shared experience. Some trust in the serendipity of the universe reminded me of the mystery beyond my control.

Despite these lessons, asking for blurbs may remain one of the “most dreaded parts of writing books,” as an Episcopal priest wrote after asking me to blurb her forthcoming book. Decades ago, my parents had been on her “discernment committee,” a group who provide guidance to someone considering the priesthood.

“I was thinking about how much I adored your parents and how meaningful they were to my beginning life as a priest,” she wrote me. “That’s some wonderfully godly stuff—that in my life as a writer, I meet you.”

Writing about life, death, and Earth—in a climate crisis in a pandemic—made me see the people whose endorsements I sought as fellow travelers discerning the next best path. Brené Brown says it best with her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from ‘What Will People Think?’ to ‘I Am Enough.’ We’re all trying to create meaning with our stories. Asking and giving help along the way is one small gift we can share.

___________________

Mallory McDuff is the author of four books including her most recent: Our Last Best Act: Planning for the End of Our Lives to Protect the People and Places We Love (Dec. 2021, Broadleaf Books). She teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, WIRED, and more. @malmcduff

Seven Reasons for Rejection

January 13, 2022 § 18 Comments

For editors, rejection is often a gut-level process: they’ve edited this journal for 5, 10, 15 years; they know instinctively if a piece doesn’t fit. For writers, rejection sucks. No matter how much we know that rejection is not feedback, we take it to heart. Question our worth. Wonder if we’ll ever write anything publishable. Rejection’s sting is the price we pay for the occasional, glorious feeling of acceptance—that we can’t predict or control.

But we can control our work. Often, a piece that’s been rejected multiple times has an identifiable problem. Take a look at your orphan essay, book or pitch. One of these issues might apply:

You’re submitting to the wrong outlet. The lowest bar to clear. Editor after editor has told me that half—half!—of what they receive is “wrong.” Not necessarily poorly written, but sent to the wrong place. A sweet personal essay sent to bitterly satirical McSweeney’s. A pitch about wolverine conservation sent to Glamour. Here at Brevity, we receive many submissions over 750 words, some of them thousands of words over. Double-check the guidelines and know the venue.

You’re submitting far above your skill level. Does our writing belong in the publication we admire? It’s hard to judge our own work, so judge theirs. Ideally, you’re already reading that press’s books, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Take a look at your own recent work. Are you actively or instinctively using those same (or similar) tools? This can be a sign you’re reaching for the right level.

The piece starts too early. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter situate the reader clearly in the story? Or is it backstory, set-up, or explanation? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph. For a book, cut the first 50 pages—then figure out what needs to be added back.

The piece ends too late. About half the essays I edit can cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper “button” to feel satisfyingly finished. Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have worked on that element of our craft.

Does your piece end with a summary, explanation, justification or excuse? Summarizing and explaining tell the reader, I’d better spell it out in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.

Instead, use the last line to usher the reader into a larger image, gently enfold them in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. More on endings here.

There’s too much filtering language.

I looked at James as he stomped over.

I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.

I heard him shout my name.

“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”

James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”

Removing filtering puts the reader more in the emotion of the scene. They can feel for us, instead of being told what we felt. Editing out most filtering language will immediately improve your work and increase your chances of acceptance.

Not making the abstract concrete. Often, our work deals with higher-level concepts, and it should! But are you embodying those concepts in concrete situations or action? If you grew up in poverty, are you telling how crappy that felt, how the other kids weren’t kind…or making “poverty” visible?

We bought mac and cheese from the dollar store and made it with water instead of milk.

Read your work. Can you make abstract concepts concrete?

No space for the reader. Explaining, filtering, excess set-up and wrap-up are all the same problem: we’re worried our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense? But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Make the reader a detective. Let them put clues together, notice dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guess a character’s thoughts from their gestures. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—meet them on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.

Seeing what’s wrong in our own work is hard. Be methodical in your later drafts. Identify what great writers are doing and try those techniques. Make checklists of specific elements to fix, change, and write better next time. Rejection’s hard, but it’s not forever—and the more we work to anticipate and fix problems in our writing before submission, the more likely we’ll be able to send our words into the world.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tired of rejection? Join her and Creative Nonfiction magazine for What’s Wrong with this Work? Turning Rejections into Publications January 19th (yes there’s a recording). Register here.

A Pilot Fish Helped Me to Overcome Jitters During My First Writing Conference

January 3, 2022 § 9 Comments

By Kelsey Cleveland

My finger hovered frozen over the register button for my first writer’s conference as perfectionism, otherwise known as fear, struck. Should I postpone attending until next year, when both my manuscript and book proposal were more polished? Maybe I could focus on craft and skip the agent meetings? I took a deep breath. What if I attended the conference with a playful sense of curiosity about what I could learn and whom I could meet? I clicked purchase and used the conference dates as a milestone to plan the revision schedule of my travel memoir.

Nerves returned in the week leading up to the big event. I fought back by over-preparing, which is a tendency among perfectionists. First, I researched speakers, sessions, tips on attending conferences, pitching, and book proposals. Based on my research, I drafted an overview of my memoir, chapter summaries, and information on comparative titles to prepare for my two pitch sessions with agents.

Months later, my body vibrated with a mixture of excitement and nerves as I entered the room for a pre-conference master class to learn about publishing from an agent. I felt calm and less alone by day’s end after connecting with fifteen other writers. Now, some friendly faces among the crowd would greet me when the conference began tomorrow. Plus, I had already met one agent I planned to pitch.

Instead of going home, a classmate convinced me to stay for the pitch fest that evening. I sat in the back, ready to observe and learn from the panelists’ feedback to other aspiring authors. I found one-on-one agent meetings seemed intimidating. Pitching in front of dozens of people felt next to impossible.

The moderator pulled the first name from the bucket. A woman handed her five dollars, strode to the front of the conference room, and pitched her non-fiction project as if presenting a two-minute dramatic monologue. I assumed she and every other writer taking part needed a complete and polished manuscript ready for submission. The three panelists offered each writer praise and areas of improvement.

I both envied and admired the writers who followed for their bravery. You couldn’t drag me up there. Some nervously clutched notes as they spoke; others presented with confidence about projects in various states of readiness.

The qualities of the pitches and projects varied. Yet, the supportive panel always offered compliments and suggestions because they wanted the writers to succeed. I regretted not putting my name in the hat when I realized they needed us, and we needed them. An aspiring author is like an Egyptian Plover flying into the mouth of a Nile Crocodile to clean its teeth. Or like a pilot fish cleaning parasites from a shark. Yes, both the shark and crocodile could eat the smaller creatures, but they won’t because they have a symbiotic relationship where both parties benefit.

When the moderator pulled the last name, I sighed with disappointment because I’d missed my chance. Wait! Wasn’t there still time left? I put five dollars in the pocket of my skirt and raised my hand high. Could they please squeeze in one more person? I held my breath with nothing to lose. The moderator consulted with the panel, who agreed.

I walked up to the front with my notes clasped in my sweaty hands. Of course, I was nervous, but I tried to lower the stakes by viewing the entire conference, including this pitch fest, as a learning experience. I focused my attention on the panelists instead of the attendees. The two minutes flew by. I survived and now had my first pitch under my belt. For the cost of a cup of high-priced coffee, I received insightful feedback on my memoir pitch, which would also help me revise my manuscript. I had done it, and my one-on-one pitch appointments the next day would seem easy in comparison. 

My conversations with a literary agent and an editor flowed like conversations with helpful mentors offering advice and feedback during the conference. A volunteer handed me a sticker shaped like a baseball after leaving the ballroom where the pitches were held. It stated, “I got 99 problems, but a pitch ain’t one.”

My identity as a writer won’t change whether or not I get published. A speaker confirmed I am a writer because I feel guilty when not writing. The conference cost less than the cost of the therapy I’d need if I denied my desire to write and have my voice heard.

___

Kelsey Cleveland is a writer, who after studying Japanese at Smith College and Nanzan University, spent eight years living in Kobe, Japan.  Her personal essay “Listen to the Waves” received honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest 86th Annual Writing Competition. Several of her tiny truths have won Creative Nonfiction’s micro-essay contests and been published in In Case You Missed It Monthly. Cleveland’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Press Pause, Monologging, Hippocampus Magazine, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, and the Sankei Shimbun (in Japanese). She is currently working on Waving Hello, Bowing Goodbye: A Dual Love Story with Japan and a Man, a travel memoir about navigating conflicting desires to pursue a childhood dream to live in Japan. She lives with her husband and teenage son outside of Portland, Oregon, where her passport is safely stowed for now. Find her at kelseycleveland.com or connect with her on Twitter @kerushi_san.

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