July 23, 2020 § 15 Comments
By Jason Thayer
I was having trouble focusing. Every story idea, every essay concept seemed unwieldy, unmanageable in the hellscape of Spring 2020. My mind flitted from anxiety to new anxiety as I obsessively checked the infection rates, monitored the new restrictions, raged against the maskless. I sat down at my computer every afternoon and tried to write something new and failed. I tried to revise my memoir manuscript, but couldn’t keep track of the arc, couldn’t assess whether the pacing in the first chapter was too fast or whether my hook was punchy enough to attract an agent.
The doorbell rang. It was our neighbor, a woman with short gray hair who wore pedal pushers like my mother. She was hugging a cardboard box.
“We have this food I won’t eat,” she said, then took a breath. Exhaled. “I don’t know if you know yet, but my husband died last week.”
I did not know this. I stood on the front porch with her for a few moments, fumbling for condolences, finally taking the box of food.
I told my partner about the interaction, the way our neighbor had used the plural, we, and then the singular, I. We unpacked the saltines, the canned chicken breast, the diet 7-Up. Trips to the grocery store were daunting and so, even though these items didn’t top our shopping list, we made our way through the gifted food.
In the morning while I washed dishes, I’d see our neighbor walk past the window and my mind would swim toward her sadness. Grief is its own isolation, and knowing that she was bearing hers alone, in lockdown, seemed an unprecedented cruelty. My father died when I was a child, and with a loss like this, comes a special communion with the bereaved; I could not stop thinking about my neighbor. Wondering what she made for dinner, and how long the leftovers lasted. Whether she was eating much at all. Whether there were days she didn’t speak to anyone except the cat that skulked across her lawn chasing squirrels. At night, I would look across our yards, the ill-defined property line, and see her reading in her living room, a single light on in the big dark house. In the morning, I would see her walk past my window as I washed dishes, and if I let my mind linger too long on her sadness, my eyes would well.
I sat down to write about this, but again, the task of molding this small interaction into a traditional essay seemed daunting. I did not have the attention span to research the impact of grief on bereaved spouses, or cull my memory for a poignant anecdote that would characterize our deceased neighbor, bringing to light what was lost. Even a flash piece was more than I could commit to, as the daily news grew more and more grim, the world around us more chaotic and unstable.
But what about a single sentence? Could I write a single sentence about my neighbor’s private grief and its vicarious impact? Yes, I could. I could work within these parameters. I could commit to this.
The single-sentence format is well-suited for this new world where our attentions stray, where our brains must keep tabs on virus rates, on which family members aren’t wearing masks, on systemic racism, on cops murdering unarmed Black and brown people.
This isn’t to suggest the single-sentence form is any easier to write. For example, I had wanted to write this blog entry in a single sentence, but couldn’t manage to fit everything I wanted to say. The limitations of a single sentence challenge the writer to twist syntax, bend structure to their will, or else winnow narrative down to the bones.
But with these restrictions also comes the opportunity for innovation. Experiments that might not be sustainable in longer work are manageable, even revelatory in brief formats. Could I read a whole novel where the protagonist was a slice of pizza? No. But a single sentence? Definitely.
Single-sentence stories can be told in a single breath, like Hemingway’s famous, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” But they can also take the form of Diane Seuss’ tour d’force, “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” published in Brevity. Here, content dictates form. The long-winded, tangent-laden single sentence mimics the breathless adrenaline of the speaker in that moment, trying to make sense of what she has just done, excising the two drug dealers from her son’s apartment. This form wouldn’t work for a plodding story without that charged immediacy.
For my purposes, a modest single sentence was ideal for distilling a small interaction that lingered with me:
I did not know our neighbor died until his wife knocked to offer a box of food she wouldn’t eat: pancake mix, diet 7-up, Pepperidge Farm white bread her husband had stomached during a 3-month-long losing-battle to cancer, a box I took gratefully, offering condolences—no hugs, because the virus was already spreading, and because I didn’t know these neighbors well enough to provide this comfort, in fact, had no idea that the jolly guy I’d bantered with under the black walnut tree we shared, had cancer—and now I try not to watch her, absorb her loneliness, take it as my own, the widow social distancing in that big house, leaving briefly for daily walks past our kitchen window as I wash dishes, griddle my partner a breakfast of pancakes.
I had seen single sentences published in lit mags before, but I’d never heard of a journal that dealt exclusively in single-sentence content. Well, I thought. That’s an idea. That’s a magazine for this new age of insecurity.
This July, I launched Complete Sentence, an online magazine of single-sentence prose. Weekly, we publish single-sentence essays, stories, reviews, and hot takes. If you are having trouble focusing, consider this challenge: write a single sentence. Just one. And then send it our way.
For submission guidelines to Complete Sentence, click here.
Jason Thayer is the Editor-in-Chief of Complete Sentence. His work has been published in The Rumpus, Fourth Genre, Hobart, and Essay Daily among others. Find more info at jasonthayer.com and on twitter @thejasonthayer.
June 17, 2020 § 15 Comments
by Mimi Jones Hedwig
When I was working as an editorial assistant in my first job at Viking Press, an eminent book publisher, one of my tasks was to handle the slush pile – the unsolicited manuscripts that arrived as actual pages, wrapped in brown paper and twine, in those quaint days before the personal computer. It was so certain that they would be rejected that I was expected not even to read them.
But I was curious and idealistic. Day after day I would browse the pages of the manuscripts that weren’t obviously amateurish or deranged, hoping for that electric surge up my spine that compelled me to keep reading.
It took two full years for that to happen. One day in 1976 I opened a package and began reading, and, unable to stop, brought the book home with me that night, and the next day gave it to my supervising editor and said, “You have to read this.” The book, Ordinary People by Judith Guest, was the first manuscript to be published from Viking’s slush pile in twenty-seven years and became a blockbuster bestseller and a multiple Academy Award-winning movie, Robert Redford’s directorial debut.
But during the two years leading up to that happy discovery, after a few minutes’ perusal I would pack each manuscript up for mailing back to the author, including an ivory colored card printed with the publisher’s colophon and the brief message: “The Viking Press thanks you for the opportunity to consider your manuscript. We regret that it is not quite suited to our present needs. With best wishes, The Editors.”
If the author had not included return postage, the archaic courtesy that still prevailed back then required that I type up an envelope and send the rejection slip that way. Even that neutrally polite form letter sometimes provoked wrathful reactions; once I opened a letter to find the rejection card inside, smeared with some suspicious brown matter and the scrawled words: “Take a taste of your own sweet medicine.”
Nevertheless, authors knew at least that their manuscripts had been received, opened, and seen by someone. They were given the respect of a response and could cling to the hope that their work might “suit another publisher’s present needs.”
Publishing has changed greatly since then. There is no longer any hope for an author of being plucked from the slush pile of a major or midsize publisher; these companies do not consider or respond to unsolicited manuscripts, but rely on literary agents to be the gatekeepers. Thus, agents are besieged by hopeful authors. Now that computers have taken much of the toil and expense out of producing a book-length manuscript – no more typing, white-out or correction tape, retyping, photocopying, packing up, and mailing – everyone can relatively easily act on their certainty that they have a story or a theory or a self-help formula that the world is waiting for.
Most of the time the only way to present your work to an agent is a one page query letter, sometimes with a permissible inclusion of a few pages of the manuscript. Agents get hundreds of these letters each week – and somewhere along the line many of them, out of self-defense, adopted the policy of “no reply means rejection.” In other words, in response to their submissions most writers can expect to experience complete, invalidating silence.
The frustration of the querying process drives many people to writers’ conferences where, for an extra fee over and above the conference registration cost, they can meet one on one with agents to make a ten-minute case for their projects. Many authors line up sessions with as many agents as their budget and schedule will permit. If the agent is interested in your description (or, possibly, if he or she wants to avoid the awkwardness of declining the project on the spot), you will be invited to submit some or all of your book.
Filled with hope, you rush home and send each agent what they have requested, in the various forms they require. And then, you wait. And as the waiting goes on into the months, you begin to suspect that you have been – in the current parlance – ghosted, that is, treated as if you and your project were a mere waft of vapor dissipating into the chill mist of utter oblivion.
I think a lot of writers get disheartened, both by the submission process and the new requirement that they come to an agent with an established, robust social media following and a body of short work published in periodicals ranging from the obscure to the major. Also, with our vivid, writerly imaginations, we may speculate that the reasons behind those mute dismissals or pro forma responses are all the criticisms and deprecations that, in our worst moments, we level at ourselves and our work.
The end result of all this is that we may begin to doubt that there’s any point in trying to get published, or, perhaps, continuing to write at all. In effect, we reject ourselves.
Here are the steps I have resolved to take to avoid engineering my own failure and becoming one of the literary ghosts doomed to hover forever on the outside of the publishing world, looking in with haunted, yearning eyes:
- Write daily, always probing for what moves or excites or holds risk, my own truth, the kinds of stories I want to read.
- Seek every day to renew my passion for the process, because I believe that is the writer’s best and surest reward, no matter how little or much worldly success we achieve.
- Repel the sense of futility that discourages me from beginning a new writing project, knowing the huge amount of work it will require and the likelihood of rejection.
- Formulate a publishing strategy: for me, now, a tiered process, starting with querying every agent who handles the genres I’m writing in; moving on, if necessary, to independent publishers who don’t require agents or monetary contributions by the author; and, if no success with those, considering a financial partnership with a carefully vetted hybrid publisher.
- Compartmentalize this process as if, when undertaking it, I commute to a separate room, a bright, efficient, and emotion-free office that is not even in the same building as the sanctuary (solitary, hushed, low lit, mysterious) that shelters and nurtures my creative work.
- Believe in the possibility that someday my work will come before a curious, idealistic publishing professional — who, scrolling through my pages, will sit up straighter at the electric surge that compels them to keep reading and then to tell someone else, “You have to read this!”
After three decades as an editor at Viking Press and Redbook, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest magazines, Mimi Jones Hedwig is working full-time on four novels and a memoir.
June 16, 2020 § 28 Comments
I needed to write about the crazy year I had. Should I keep working on it?
Sometimes I’m a last resort:
I’ve queried 100 agents and nobody wants my book. Should I just self-publish?
The answer is always another question:
What does your book do for the reader?
Memoir already lacks suspense. We lose the novelist’s standby of “will this character make it?” We know you survived—you wrote a book about it. Most of us are not such brilliant writers that our shining prose fascinates regardless of the subject. Most of us are working hard to raise our storytelling skills to the level of the story’s own power, because raw trauma is not enough.
But there’s a shortcut.
Write a book that does something for the reader.
Write the book that beautifully expresses the pain of your addiction, or the trauma of your childhood, or the desperation of your divorce, but revise it to directly help the reader. Beyond “my story is universal.” Beyond “people need to know this situation exists.”
Yes, one of the gifts of memoir is showing readers “you’re not the only one who felt like this.” But unless we are writing National Book Award-level prose, our personal pain is not enough, no matter how honestly we express it. When a promising manuscript veers from story into eulogy, I sometimes howl internally:
…nobody cares about your kid!
…nobody cares about your pet!
…nobody cares about your dead relative!
Readers are sympathetic, but sympathy for a stranger’s problems doesn’t last 285 pages. Transforming your painful (or joyful!) experience into a book that sells means tying your problem directly to the reader’s own experience, using your writing skill and personal credentials. This does not mean writing self-help, but showing specific, actionable steps the reader might be inspired to take.
What does “do something for the reader” look like in practice?
- Medical memoir: My dad died and it was horrifying and Mom was no help at all and here’s how I navigated a medical system designed to rip us off, and what I learned about myself and about Medicare. Also, I’m hilarious.
The reader gets: OMG my parent had funny death stuff too and I felt so bad laughing but it’s OK to laugh, and wow, I don’t have to pay that bill!
- Death of a child memoir: My kid died and it was horrifying and here’s how I lived in a fantasy world where drug abuse didn’t look like my kid, and what I learned. Also, I’m a brilliant writer.
I’m not the only one who missed the signs and I don’t have to feel dumb and guilty because I see why she did too, and wow! That paragraph puts my grief into words!
- Death of a pet memoir: My dog died and it was sad and here’s what I learned about alternative pet medicine, when to stop medical intervention, and how I knew it was time to let her go. Also, I’m a veterinarian with stories about how others knew when to treat their pet or let them go.
I’m not a terrible pet owner for not buying another kidney for Princess, and wow! Now I have specific ways to process my grief without hearing “it’s only a dog”!
- Family memoir: My grandchild is precocious and I taught myself how to talk about climate change and human destructiveness without crushing a child’s spirit. Also, I’m an educator and will fill you with hope.
I don’t have to be a scientist to have an age-appropriate conversation with my six-year-old about human extinction, and wow! I’m a little more hopeful myself!
Take a look at your own manuscript:
- Is the first chapter backstory and exposition because “No one will understand my family if I don’t tell our history”? We are not as unique as we think. That’s why memoir is “universal.” Cut those pages. Get the reader hooked emotionally. Identify your problem that might also be their problem. Fill in backstory later as needed.
- Got more than two pages in a row about how great someone was, or what living with them was like? A eulogy is not a story. Cut to the best paragraph or the most significant gesture. Show them through actions. Put their greatness in context with your problem. My husband was so thoughtful, when I was widowed I didn’t know how to pay the electric bill and here’s how I navigated that. Or, My dog was so amazing I had to learn how to grieve an animal when she died and here’s what I did.
- Is how you tell your story inspiring, hopeful, or educational? Not textbook or self-help, but can readers productively channel your experience to walk away as better people?
H is for Hawk* teaches readers about falconry and processing grief through new experience. Wild inspires taking a physical journey to purge our past. How to Be Black examines American racism through a personal lens, and the lessons are truly absorbed through comedy.
Pour out your love and tragedy and joy in words. Maybe you’ll have a 285-page eulogy. Maybe it’ll be the first draft of a book you sell. For readers, honoring your dead is not enough. Not your dead mom, your dead kid or your dead dog. Write to honor your love and your kin. Revise to do something for the reader.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Instagram for writing advice, travel adventures, and workshop and retreat announcements.
*Just FYI, H is for Hawk is on sale right now (4.99 Kindle) if you’ve been meaning to read it, and How to Be Black is free right now with Kindle Unlimited.
June 3, 2020 § Leave a comment
Christopher Madden, David Lëgere, and Colin Hosten are editors at Woodhall Press, publisher of Flash Nonfiction Funny, Flash Nonfiction Food, and the forthcoming Fast Funny Women. The three of them had a socially distanced discussion on our current public health crisis and the importance of storytelling as a way of documenting individual experiences. Below is a truncated transcript of their conversation:
Christopher Madden: We’ve published two collections of flash nonfiction, with a third on the way. Is this perhaps the right format for pandemic-related storytelling?
Colin Hosten: The context seems very different, thematically. We’ve tackled humor and food. How would we navigate the ongoing tragedy of this crisis?
David Lëgere: The theme is different, but I don’t think that changes our goal as a publisher—to connect readers and writers through vital storytelling.
CM: Flash nonfiction, specifically, may be very well suited for people on the front line of this pandemic, as opposed to longer form essays.
DL: Exactly—it allows us to capture as many voices as possible in one compendium.
CH: And what kinds of voices would we be seeking? You mention people on the front lines…
CM: Basically anyone facing this crisis head-on. Nurses and other medical professionals. ER staff. Essential workers making sure trash is still picked up. Delivery workers, first responders….
CM: Sure—the idea is to preserve and amplify these essential voices and stories from anyone caught on the front lines of this.
CH: I think it’s a fantastic idea. And it may be a way to highlight some of the things that these diverse voices might have in common.
DL: What should we use as a working title?
CH: We already have a paradigm going with Flash Nonfiction Funny and Flash Nonfiction Food. Maybe something like Flash Nonfiction Frontline?
CM: Is that too general? Should we make it clearer that we mean the front lines of this pandemic?
DL: I mean, this is basically the main thing occupying the public consciousness for the foreseeable future—let’s just be direct: Flash Nonfiction COVID-19.
CH: Well, that certainly is direct.
CM: It’s more to-the-point,
CH: We’ll need to get a call for submissions out, sooner rather than later.
DL: Are people even able to do much writing through all this stress and trauma?
CM: Maybe part of the point of this is to encourage those on the front lines to use writing as a tool for reflection, for negotiating the trauma.
CH: And, again, the flash form allows people to dive right in and back out again in just 750 words. To Chris’s point, flash nonfiction may be the appropriate vehicle for something like this.
DL: So what’s the best way to get the word out, besides all the usual suspects?
CH: Brevity publishes some of the best flash nonfiction being written these days. We should reach out to them and see if they’d be willing to share with their readers.
DL: Good idea!
CM: I sure hope we get lots of strong submissions.
DL: I’ll be checking email@example.com every day!
CH: And let’s make sure folks know they can go to https://www.woodhallpress.com/post/call-for-submissions for more information.
CM: And share it with their friends on the front lines!
May 29, 2020 § 38 Comments
By Barry Casey
About 15 years ago, after a divorce, mid-way through a teaching career and suddenly alone with my books, I looked at them and thought, “Alright, time to earn your keep.” All these books, many of which I had not read yet, were calling me, so I began keeping a common book, a journal for writing down quotes and ideas from the books I was reading. History, politics, theology, ethics, philosophy, social issues—I was reading up and writing down what I learned, what intrigued me.
So I began blogging.
In the evenings, after I’d finished grading my communications and philosophy courses, I’d jot down interesting sentences I’d come across. Then on Friday nights I’d choose one as an epigram and look for two or three quotes from authors in wildly disparate fields—the farther apart the better. Eric Hoffer and William Blake, Thoreau and John Stuart Mill, Emerson and Albert Camus, Thomas Merton and Nietzsche. The pleasure was in pulling together ideas from opposite ends of the spectrum and creating an essay that made sense and sparkled.
I’d start about nine p.m., write for four hours, post it, and go to bed. I rarely rewrote. The ideas were pouring out of me. It was exhilarating. I called the blog “Wretched Success” because I liked the way it sounded.
Three years later came another fracture. The president of our small college took a position at another university and a new president was imposed on us. He alienated almost everybody. Within three months he had slashed several departments and, without cause, fired two of my colleagues in our department. I resigned in protest.
Without a job, but with a wonderful woman as my fiancée, it felt like a leap and a liberation. In the next couple of years we married and I took an interim position directing a faculty development program at a local university.
When that was up, I began adjunct teaching. That meant hours of commuting and teaching five or six classes per semester at three universities. At the end of every week I was exhausted. I stopped writing. Whatever fountain of creativity I’d enjoyed had dried up.
But I knew I still had much to explore, so eventually I began again, in a herky-jerky fashion, a paragraph here and there between classes. This time around I found that the words did not flow; the ideas came laboriously. It was difficult.
Instead of splashing together ideas for the sheer joy of it, I was struggling. It felt like hearing voices through a wall, but not clearly enough to make out the words. I needed some structure, some idea of form. Perhaps what I lacked in spontaneity I could gain back by adapting within my limitations.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” Joan Didion once wrote. That became my touchstone and the subtitle to my new blog, Danteswoods.com—“Writing to see what I think.”
I began reading essays voraciously, like Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, Samuel Johnson’s essays from The Spectator and The Rambler, and favorites from Didion, A. C. Grayling, George Orwell, and Emerson. I began to see patterns, new approaches, ways to begin and to conclude. It was exhilarating all over again.
I discovered that what I needed to start writing was a phrase, a fragment, that could serve as an evocative title. Or, more often, an epigram would set me on a trail to answer a question. I took Didion’s line seriously, asking myself what I honestly thought, felt, understood, about what I was reading, what I was experiencing. At the same time, I fostered a kind of innocence, an openness to going where my curiosity led me, to follow the path the narrative was carving through the underbrush.
Sometimes, I got stuck. I couldn’t find a finger-hold on this sheer cliff of an empty page. In those times, my fallback was Annie Dillard’s first sentence in her 1989 book, The Writing Life: “When you write, you lay out a line of words.” That was often enough to give me the jump-start that I needed. And I knew that the first few paragraphs were not the beginning of the essay—they were the warm-up act for the real one.
Almost three years ago, I was offered a weekly column, writing for an international publication on spirituality and faith. Every week I would explore something I had been wrestling with in my own experience. Often, I would imagine my way into one of the Gospel stories, trying to feel the intensity of a first-century encounter with an itinerant healer named Jesus. My essays took on a lyrical aspect as I immersed myself in Albert Camus’ Lyrical and Critical Essays, and those of his mentor, Jean Grenier. From Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss and Mark Oakley’s The Splash of Words, I learned the value of a singular thought amplified and collaged with other fragments into a whole. I took my time, choosing my words, cutting and rearranging paragraphs, spending time on the details.
Just over a year ago I retired from teaching after 37 years. In November 2019, my first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf & Stock. I am finishing up a second collection and working on a book about Albert Camus with a friend in England.
I am grateful for the mentorship of a myriad of writers to whom I am unknown. And I’ve learned to adapt to my process of writing and claim it as my own. My limitations become advantages when I work with them, not against them.
Barry Casey is retired after 37 years of teaching philosophy and communications. He writes a bi-weekly column for Spectrum Magazine and is a contributing writer for Mountain News in Colorado. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery was published in 2019 by Wipf and Stock.
May 28, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Jennifer Silva Redmond
I was recently asked how writing/publishing has changed in the past decades, especially as it pertains to “hooking” readers. Writer friends mention that they keep rearranging their books’ openings to satisfy those gatekeepers who say every author needs to “get to it” more quickly.
I can only report from my own point of view, as an editor who works in many different genres and whose clients’ books are successful with readers, get excellent reviews, and win awards. In addition to overdoing exposition and description in the first pages and chapters, one of the chief reasons agents and editors pass on otherwise fine manuscripts is the lack of a “hook.”
Yes, today’s writers often hear that they need to hook people on page one, that only action or drama—or laughter, of course—will do that, and that it all has to happen right away! Something must grab readers in the first few pages (often on page one), and keep them reading.
In days of yore, authors could take time to “bait the hook” as it were, to spend pages, often chapters, getting to the crux of what the book was about. (Some of this is because Victorian authors—some of whose works I adore—were paid by the word, so why not go on and on?)
But shorter and quicker is not always better. A big literary surprise in recent years was the success of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which many people (including some reviewers) found tedious and slow, but which I loved. I think the first line of the book hooked me because it is so mysterious:
While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.
I kept reading to figure out how that happened and why.
People read books about people, we don’t read novels to learn about ideas and concepts and philosophies, we read to hear about—and perhaps better understand—people. So, a hook needs a character, hopefully your main character, doing something that reveals or illuminates that person to us. Perhaps the character is still living in the “Eden State” of a story—before the inciting incident—but it had best be an active, visual, and somehow exciting one.
What hooks us in almost every case is the same, in my humble opinion: characters doing or saying things that hint at what is lacking in their life (as in the Goldfinch example), or what is so perfect about their life—right before it all comes crashing down. So, if we want to show cruelty in a person, we don’t have to show them hurting someone on page one, but we could show casual cruelty: crushing an insect under their boot heel, or throwing something at their pet.
One of my favorite works of creative nonfiction, Bruce Berger’s Almost An Island, opens with a paragraph that includes the line, “Longer than Florida, longer than Italy, Baja California is an eight hundred-mile dead end” and goes on to describe it as “a shaft of desert surrounded by the substance whose scarcity defines deserts…” But after describing the peninsula’s ever-popular coves and beaches, he concludes with “…my idea of a good day at sea is to lie on a hot rock reading Conrad.” Berger’s opening intrigued me with poetic visuals of the natural world, but it truly hooked me with its humor, letting me know with a personal aside that the book wouldn’t read like homework.
The prologue of Marilyn Woods’ just-released memoir The Orange Woods includes the sentence:
This is not a story about grief or art or making wine or Mother Nature, although all figure prominently throughout. This is the story of a peaceful pastoral paradise where I lived for twenty years.
Those ideas and images are pretty darn irresistible to the right reader, so she didn’t need to manufacture any artificial drama.
Clearly, every genre has “rules” that need to be followed. With genre comes expectation. You can’t write romance and not introduce your main character in a way that tells us why or how she is “looking for love” or definitely not looking for love, which might amount to the same thing. Some genres have to open with a murder, or at least a dead body. But the hook should also relate to a book’s theme or story, in some way, no matter how obscure.
The question to ask yourself is this: What is my book about? If you can “pitch” the book in a sentence or two, you know what it is about. And if you know that, then the opening should be easy to decide on, because it will be a scene that tells us the most clearly who the book is about, and why we should care.
Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, specializing in memoir and nonfiction adventure travel. She has worked on books including The Dining Car by Eric Peterson, Wheels Up: a Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival by Jeanine Kitchel and Soil-Man by Oz Monroe. Find out more about “Jenny Redbug” and her work at jennyredbug.com.
May 19, 2020 § 11 Comments
As a widely published writing coach, NYU writing professor, and assigning editor, my current and former students have been sending me pitches, op-eds and essays about why they are “breaking the rules of quarantine.” Sometimes they offer the justification that they have health, mental or emotional issues, and that’s why the rules shouldn’t apply…not to them.
In the midst of this crisis, it’s not the time for writers to grasp for splashy pieces founded on flaunting their ethical failures or illegal methods to sell their memoirs or build their platform. It will backfire.
As a writing teacher, a big part of what I do is save people from their worst instincts on what stories need to be told and how they need to tell it.
Students share their darkest moments with me and I help them craft their pain into stories that are published in top tier publications. I believe that care is a key reason I have been entrusted with training teens in journalism in NYU’s summer program.
What I don’t do is encourage them to exploit their pain to get a quick clip. Let me break it down for you:
We tell our kids with social media that once it’s up, it’s out there forever. So let’s take a slice of our own advice. If you broke the law, faced down a cop, stole money, betrayed your marital vows, or played a prank on someone that ended with tragedy, why would you want to advertise that? It can’t possibly benefit you or your family. People will get mad, and may want revenge. Whether they send your essay to the cop you proudly thwarted, testify against you in a child support hearing, or take action to have you pay what you took back to society, think twice about writing about it.
Instead: If you’ve done something that shouldn’t be publicized and you are compelled to share it with the world, write it into a novel. You will get points for imagination, even if it is the truth.
Let’s also not confuse revealing, first-person pieces with clickbait. I have noticed that many writers make the mistake of producing humiliating stories that never take their careers anywhere.
The reason that happens is that those clickbait stories—even those written well—shared damning details of something that happened to the writer, but offered no further insight beneath the events. The writer didn’t dig deep.
I’m all for a revealing, first-person piece and have written many of those pieces myself. But those pieces need to do something important: the reader has to relate to the writer and to do that they have to understand the emotional underpinnings of why the writer did what they did, and then some transformation or learning has to take place.
Anecdotes need to have a broader focus. Vivian Gornick’s brilliant book The Situation and the Story references the external—the logistical situation; and the internal, which is the story. The story is the heart, the part that shows the emotional underpinnings which make up the narrative arc of an essay. Without it, the essay is simply a situation, or clickbait.
Bottom line: This is a fraught time and there are people suffering, so please think twice about sending essays into the world that open you up for many legal and emotional ramifications and attacks. There is no smart way to sacrifice your integrity to get that byline. You may get notoriety—but not for your work. Just for being a jerk.
Estelle Erasmus, an award-winning journalist and writing coach, has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Week, Insider, The Independent, Parents Magazine and more. She is an adjunct writing professor at NYU and an ongoing guest editor for Narratively. She also teaches for Writer’s Digest, writes a column for Forbes and hosts/curates the podcast ASJA Direct: Inside Intel on Getting Published and Paid Well. Estelle can be found giving publishing advice on her website, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
May 5, 2020 § Leave a comment
In our latest issue, Beth Kephart asks the incessant questions we’ve all muttered under our breath, wondering if our words matter. She reminds us to quell the questions, the doubts—the wild circuses we create in our minds—and to embrace “the joy we take from the writing itself.” Here is an excerpt from Kephart’s moving craft essay:
Does every author feel this way? Are we all—I’ll use the word—afraid? That no one will care about the books we write? That no one will place their orders at the Indies, that we won’t be invited to (is that the same as being wanted at?) the big alphabet events—NCTE-BEA-ILA. That readers will not stop and ask for us, that no prize giver will consider our fine wares, that the newspaper will not blast our genius?
Read the full version of Beth Kephart’s thoughtful craft essay in our new issue.
April 19, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Connor Beeman
New Ohio Review has extended its annual contest until April 22nd — that’s just three more days — and we’re happy to announce that Ira Sukrungruang is our nonfiction judge. Sukrungruang is the author of two memoirs, Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy; a short story collection, The Melting Season; and a collection of poetry, In Thailand It Is Night, as well as the recent collection of essays, Buddha’s Dog & Other Meditations. He’s a Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College and the recipient of the 2015 American Book Award as well as several prominent fellowships.
Sukrungruang’s writing often confronts his upbringing, and in particular deals with his Thai heritage, eastern religion, and life in America as the son of Thai immigrants. Buddhism plays a vital role in many of his works, as can been seen in essays from Buddha’s Dog. “The Animatronic Dog,” for instance, blends a vivid account of growing up Thai in Chicago with a story of Buddha befriending a dog. This story is told to Sukrungruang by his mother, who is herself an unforgettable figure throughout the book. Another essay, “The Dog Without a Bark,” finds a young Sukrungruang briefly befriending a local dog with cut vocal cords and finding an unexpected connection. Looking back on this moment, Sukrungruang writes, “I remember that Sheltie for the lessons I carry with me: you don’t need a voice to know what you want. You don’t need to sound like everyone else to make yourself heard.”
We’re excited to have Ira Sukrungruang—an inimitable voice in his own right and a wonderful writer and teacher—as our nonfiction judge, and we look forward to seeing the work that you share.
Connor Beeman is an Editorial Associate at New Ohio Review.
March 27, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Victoria Buitron
In October 2019, I became one of the readers for Brevity’s special “Experiences of Disability” issue. I was excited to be a part of the team, and it drove me to write an essay about living with a chronic illness for my MFA thesis. It has been a privilege to read the assigned essays, and I am continuously in awe at the resilience and creativity fellow writers can find in the depths of pain. It somehow seems wholly apt and an act of masochism to be reading submissions now, when a form of collective pain has enveloped the world due to COVID-19. I’ve experienced two conflicting feelings while reading submissions the last few weeks. First, I’m proud to be a reader because I know how difficult it is for people to share their lived experiences with disabilities and illnesses, especially when my diagnosis didn’t arrive until I was nearly thirty. Second, at times there has been an unfettered desire to throw my laptop across the room because my pain, coupled with others’ pain, has become unbearable.
Since COVID-19 took over, its resulting grief hasn’t allowed me to concentrate or analyze submissions for the special issue. I have opened up Submittable, arrived at an essay, read the first paragraph, and then closed the tab. Waves of guilt have overcome me because writers are sharing the hardest moments of their lives and I can’t even will myself to read them. Snap out of it, I’ve told myself. I hadn’t realized that lack of concentration and ineptitude were some of the symptoms of a pandemic until I went on social media and saw writers who I admire confess they’ve felt the same way. A few days ago, I teetered on the idea of sending an email to the special issue’s managing editor explaining I wasn’t in the right mindset to continue reading.
Before I could send that email, I had a conversation with my brother, who at 24 was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent surgery this past January. He has been too chipper since then, and his anxiety seems nonexistent while my mental health has been imploding.
“Why are you being so positive throughout this whole thing?” I asked him.
“Well, I lost my job in December, I had surgery in January, they confirmed it was a malignant tumor in February, and now a worldwide pandemic in March. My reasoning is it can only get better from here,” he said. I shouldn’t have cackled when he said this, but I did.
As the days have passed since our conversation, the only reason I have been able to go back to reading essay submissions about disability and illness is because of him. If he can envision a future, why can’t I? If he can make Instagram challenges during the pandemic, why can’t I? If he can read the book Room to Dream by David Lynch, sitting in the front yard while the sun sparkles on his jet-black hair and I stare at him from the window—thankful that it’s only stage one cancer—why can’t I read too? If he can write a script while being forced to stay put because even venturing to the pharmacy is strictly prohibited for him, why can’t I sit down and read for Brevity?
So, on a gloomy March day, I once again started to write and read essays about pain, because I figure we don’t just overcome viruses, and cancer, and grief, and unemployment, we fight through them.
No one knows how the world will look or feel like in September 2020, the tentative month the Experiences of Disability issue will go live. COVID-19 has already altered our lives and converted our shelter-in-place realities into the Twilight Zone, but I am certain Brevity will be there for us, just like it has been for more than twenty years. What I do recommend, especially if you are overwhelmed with grief or uncertainty when this issue goes live, is to treat every essay like a daily snack. This is the reading tactic I’ve now been implementing for the March submissions. Some weeks I’ve been assigned twenty essays or more, and I limit the intake each day or else my mental health wanes. Some days I’ve stopped reading altogether, until I feel ready to dive back in.
The essays in this upcoming issue will be imperative, more so in the midst of an era when the world has partly been brought to a halt due to a virus. I hope to send my brother the link to the issue, and thank him for allowing some of his courage to rub off on me when I felt like giving up.
The issue will be there for you to read when you’re ready, whenever that may be.
Victoria Buitron is a dual citizen of Ecuador and the United States. She is a translator and writer based in Connecticut and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, The Bare Life Review, Brevity Blog and more. Find her on Twitter @kikitraveler30.