October 22, 2020 § 21 Comments
My friend, a fellow writer, waved for help.
A literary journal had just rejected her short story. The editor’s comments troubled her. She wanted to know what we had to say, the seven of us in the same cherished writers’ group.
“I’m usually eager to take an editor’s advice,” she told us, “but if I try to fix what the editor identified as problem areas, I risk losing the tone and voice I was going for.”
We knew her story—about a woman who meets a 13-year-old boy for the first time in tragic circumstances—having shared our feedback weeks earlier. “It’s ready,” we told her. “Put it out there.”
But the editor found the woman’s “awkwardness” with the boy “unconvincing.”
“Send me the story,” I said. “I’ll re-read it while standing in the editor’s shoes.”
Which I did.
The editor’s shoes did not fit.
I could not detect in the female character one grain of awkwardness. Quite the opposite. I saw a woman with a hardscrabble past and a broken relationship with her parents, who likes this 13-year-old kid all right, but feels no need to cater to him. She observes him closely and speaks to him like an adult. Casually serves him his first-ever cup of coffee. Lights a cigarette, because she is simply being herself, with no apologies.
The boy responds in kind. He makes no extra effort to impress her. He navigates the encounter on its own terms.
In the poignant final scene, the woman delivers, in practical, straight-up terms, some hard-won advice. Topped out with emotion, the kid promises to heed her warning.
I liked the woman’s cool demeanor. Her honesty. Her brusque talk. “She relates to the kid with respect and authenticity,” I reported to my friend. “She’s raised him to her level instead of talking down.”
I spoke the words many a conflicted writer yearns to hear: “Pay no attention to the editor.”
But I had missed something crucial.
A fellow colleague—another professional editor—saw the female character as emotionally stunted because of her own dysfunctional childhood and therefore unable to engage “appropriately” with the kid.
I was dumbfounded. What was going on here? Why was my interpretation so unlike theirs?
I read the story again.
A divine light did not shine down on me. I could not see the woman as flawed.
My friend, the writer, came to my rescue.
“You were an only child and your parents spoke to you as an adult,” she said, drawing on what she knew from chapters from my manuscript. “So that’s what you picked up. And you weren’t wrong. Your own experience pointed to it being a plus, and not awkwardness.”
Holy Hannah. She was right. I’d had a plain-dealing mother with a traumatic past who prided herself on delivering hard truths with no regard for any age I might be, using the full range of her Latinate vocabulary. I didn’t mind. It was just how things were done.
On some unexamined level, I knew readers brought their own background and experience to a story. But now I had witnessed myself responding in real time, in a way completely at odds with two other respected writers.
My next thought was, My feedback had failed my friend.
“Nope,” she told me. “That’s the beauty of having different people look at a piece of writing. Everyone sees something different.”
Fair enough. But wouldn’t competing takes on a narrative confuse a writer?
“It doesn’t matter what was in my mind when I wrote the story,” said my friend, echoing Beth Kephart in her luminous Brevity craft essay, Circus Act. “Once we release our art to the world, it doesn’t belong to us anymore.”
But if I’m supposed to be providing actionable feedback, don’t I have an obligation to switch off my personal lens, so as not to throw the writer off her game?
“Why would you want to switch it off?” asked my friend, whom I was appreciating more and more by the minute. “Bring on the different perspectives. Your opinion may differ from everyone else’s, but that difference is important.”
Besides, I had just proved that finding this particular off-switch was, for me at least, impossible.
And that’s when another piece of familiar wisdom snapped like a magnet to my frontal lobe—something I’d reminded others of a million times, almost as if I knew what I was talking about.
From writer and creativity mentor Austin Kleon: “Take what you can use, and leave the rest.”
My friend ended up passing on both the editor’s feedback, and mine. She gave what both of us had to say due consideration, but ultimately what we told her didn’t fit. She knew, when faced with conflicting interpretations of her work, that her only obligation was to herself.
As readers, we have a similar freedom.
Our obligation as reviewers is to share our unique perspective with an open heart.
To hope that we will crack a window for the writer, and to accept if we do not—in the spirit of the wild, free, creative winds that press for entry at the windows of all writers.
Best of all, to enjoy her story exactly the way my life and temperament led me to interpret it.
Heidi Croot is an award-winning business writer, published in numerous trade publications. Her creative writing has appeared in Linea magazine and the WCDR anthology Renaissance and has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and others. She lives in beautiful Northumberland County, Canada, and is working on a memoir.
October 8, 2020 § 22 Comments
Perhaps your manuscript is as good as you can make it…but you’d like a second opinion. Or maybe you know something isn’t quite clicking…but you’re not sure what. Maybe you’ve heard a fellow writer say, “My editor pointed out issue X and everything fell into place! I still have a lot of work to do, but I know where I’m going.” Maybe you’re getting rejections and you don’t know why your book isn’t landing with agents or publishers.
Most authors reach a draft where they can’t improve their manuscript further without high-level outside input. More thorough or more sophisticated critique than even your best writer friends have time to give. It’s time to call in a big favor…or spend money.
If your literary citizenship has included reading for friends and acquaintances, promoting and reviewing their books, and staying in touch with workshop colleagues and teachers, you may have a free or low-cost reader available. A writer you trust, whose work you believe is more polished than yours. Maybe the classmate who gave the best feedback to everyone else. Someone who doesn’t love everything you write—praise is not useful at this time.
Ask in a way that makes it easy to say no, and that suggests you’re prepared to compensate them appropriately for their expertise.
I don’t know what your schedule is like right now, but do you do manuscript reads? And if so, do you have a regular rate?
They might say, “I’d love to read your work, just send it along,” in which case you send a heartfelt thank-you note and review everything they ever write in as many online locations as you can. Or they’ll quote a price and you can decide if they’re within your budget.
A free or low-cost reader needs your request for feedback to be as specific as possible. You might ask 5-10 questions like, “Does the main character’s emotional journey pay off at the end?” or “Can you please highlight things you think I can cut?”
High-level critique also comes from professional editors. A good editor will help you make your book the best you can write, and much readier for querying, submissions or self-publishing. Unlike your friend doing you a favor, you’ll have a specific due date and a clear scope of work.
If you’ve explored hiring a professional editor, you may have noticed one key element: Good editors are EXPENSIVE. House payment-expensive. International airline ticket-expensive. Sometimes even refundable business class-expensive. Editing is skilled, high-level work that should dramatically increase the sellability of your book, and it costs accordingly.
Editors may bill a set project fee, hourly (with an estimate), or per-word. Some charge per page, but a “standard” page is 250 words so that’s functionally per-word. These prices are usually based on how much time your manuscript needs. Send the cleanest manuscript you can. Pages with fewer typos and grammatical errors take less time; you’ll also get more bang for your buck if the editor spends her time on issues you couldn’t see or fix yourself.
You can also save money on editing by reducing your word count. The more unnecessary words you remove on your own, the less a full edit will cost. Here’s how to slim down your story without losing what’s important:
1) Many memoirs (and novels!) start too late. Send pages 50-75 to someone who hasn’t read the book. Ask what they know about the story and the narrator. Cut those details out of the first 50 pages. Ask what they wish they knew. See if you can move those things out of the first 50 pages and put them in later, but smaller. I’ve had several editorial clients who cut their first 50 pages because the story hadn’t started yet. Especially if it was a big chunk of family history.
2) Send only the first 25 pages (now possibly your revised pages 50-75) for professional editing. Problems at the beginning are almost certainly problems through the whole book. Ask for a list of what to fix, then address those issues in the rest of the book before sending off your entire manuscript. If your memoir is over 85K words, ask specifically about reducing length. (If your manuscript is under 60K, ask what you’re missing that needs to be added in.)
3) Do a Word Cloud (I like Wordle) to see overused words. Remove/substitute as needed.
4) Search for that, very, really, beginning to/began to, starting to/started to, and continued and take out half to two-thirds of each.
Words add up. Developmental edit on an 85K manuscript at 4 cents/word? $3400. Cut 4000 words of extra subplot, 4800 words of excess description and 200 appearances of very and really? You just saved $400.
Before committing to working with a professional or other high-level reader, do as much as you can alone. Join a writing group, trade manuscripts with a writer buddy. Before you send your pages or manuscript, read through one more time. Knowing that feedback is imminent, more issues will stick out. It’s possible you’ll solve your own problem. It’s also possible you’ll still need an edit.
Editing is not a magic cure. Your book still may be unpublishable. Your writing may not be ready. But a good editor will not just polish this book—her feedback will teach you more about writing, and your next book will start at a higher level of craft.
And if what you’re struggling with is structure? Check out my webinar October 21st: Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s only $25—no matter what your word count is.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. October 21st, she’ll be teaching how to structure a memoir to engage readers, agents and publishers. What’s an “inciting incident” or a “climax” when you’re looking at real life? How to decide what events belong in your book? Suitable for those with an idea, a draft, or a terrifying pile of material, you’ll discover how to tell the right story about the story you need to tell. Sign up here.
October 2, 2020 § 11 Comments
By Margaret Moore
The book is not done yet because there is a certain process that goes into successfully crafting a book, and the process, which I intend to follow, maintains that I must produce several drafts, moving my memoir from a really rough, unfocused sketch of a portion of my life to a pointed, purposeful plot that demonstrates a very specific idea about life, and, to achieve this, I must create outlines with proposed content, angles, and approaches, and then I must write drafts based on those outlines, and there are days where I open the draft I wrote the previous day only to realize that the narrative does not work from a craft standpoint, so I cut paragraphs and even entire pages as I hold my breath and try to remember that I can always go back to it if whatever I write in its place doesn’t work, and then I work up new drafts, and I eventually come to be enthralled with one or perhaps a few of those drafts and I work on fine-tuning and polishing those pages, and then I get to the point of satisfaction with them, so I submit them to my faculty mentors, fellow students, and writer friends, and they give me in-depth feedback on what could be clearer, elaborated on, and added to make the piece stronger, and that inspires me to make more outlines and new versions of the piece, and then the process repeats a few times as I develop new pages and revisions, and, by the way, I only just started my MFA in Creative Writing and this is really the first time ever that I have been able to work on writing and the memoir full-time without having other disciplines to attend to, and I’m finally feeling like I’m getting somewhere serious with it, and, hopefully, in about two years, I will have a manuscript that I can submit to gurus in editing and publishing, but then I will have to take their suggestions into consideration and go through more rounds of revisions until it is publication-ready, and, I have not looked too far into this stage yet—I’m taking it one step at a time—but I expect that I will work with my publishers to proof galleys to make sure the memoir looks the way it should before it goes to print, and there might be marketing details to attend to, and whatever else, and then the book will eventually be released, and, yes, this is an extremely long process—definitely lengthier than I expect it to be for future books simply because this is my first book—but I assure you, it has been tried and proven effective by many established authors and, in the end, you will have a high-quality book authored by me in your hands.
Margaret Moore graduated Fairfield University Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Creative Writing in May of 2020. Her work has appeared in Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy and Independent Catholic News among other publications. She is now working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University.
September 19, 2020 § 4 Comments
Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams, author of the forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro, discuss the joys and struggles of virtual literary citizenship and how writers can build community, even via webcam and Zoom account.
Tomorrow is the final day for an Early Bird Discount on Rebirth Your Writing: a Publishing and Craft Intensive to be held in mid-October, aimed at helping us keep our writing alive despite the challenges of the current moment. (More details on schedule and registration here.).
Dinty: There are so many changes in our lives due to this pandemic and the necessity of cancelling events and staying home. For writers, that means we aren’t casually bumping into one another at readings or coffee shops, or attending weekend writing seminars at our local Literary Centers. Writing is a lonely enough activity as it is, but it feels a bit lonelier right now. Have you noticed writers building community in new ways?
Allison: I have – I’m actually phoning people to talk at length, which I haven’t done in a long time. I’ve done a couple of Zoom events where participants are randomly sent into breakout rooms for 6-7 minutes, and meet a couple of other people. Each time I think, “This will be awful” and each time I end up being grateful for the connection and sustaining contact with at least one of the other people. I’m also seeing more genuine conversations on Twitter, rather than just dropping cleverness bombs and running away, and on Instagram, where people are asking quite soul-searching questions and having sustained interaction in the comments. So it’s a mix of writers reaching out and hoping someone latches on, and facilitated conversations where a host metaphorically says, “Talk to Susie, you’ll love her!” and it turns out I do.
Dinty: I’ve attended a few Zoom webinars as well, but have also been teaching online, and I will add that from the teacher side of the webcam, the experience is more successful than I ever would have guessed. I was skeptical, in other words, that teaching by Zoom would be anything more than ‘sterile’ or ‘robotic,’ but it has turned out to be the exact opposite. It feels, as you say above, “genuine.” And the participants seem happy to be there, and generous with their insights and comments. Maybe one reason is that so many of us are locked down at home, and we crave more connection. Whatever the reason, I’m pleased with how well it has worked.
Allison: What I love as a teacher is what I’m learning about teaching that I’ll one day take back into the live classroom. Because eye contact doesn’t quite line up, I’m remembering to use people’s names more, and to watch for clues they’d like to talk, even if they’re not ready to signal it. We’re all waiting longer after a comment or question to see who’d like to speak next, and I think that lets each others’ words really sink in, before the next person offers their thoughts. There’s a “performative listening” that for me is translating into deeper actual listening. And both you and I want to build on that, which is why we’re including time for writers to talk to each other, both casually and intentionally, in this thing we’re about to do! Turning on the Zoom room early for “cafe time” where people can bring their coffee, leaving it on through the midday break, and having a couple of sessions where we’re facilitating small-group conversations about their work and their goals. I’m hoping writers will leave with sustained connections and a specific plan for their work. When you’ve got someone to check in on your goals with, even if it’s very low-key, it’s like having a little mastermind.
Dinty: I am ready for this pandemic era to be over, ready to push my way into a crowded restaurant, ready for the next big writers conference with a crowded, noisy lobby and maybe a late-at-night gathering in the hotel bar. But I’m guessing we’ll look back with partial fondness even at this difficult time period, because there is always something. Like you, I think the online camaraderie, the enthusiasm people have brought to these Zoom events, will remain in my memory as a small silver lining to a largely difficult time. Stay well, stay safe, and wear you mask.
More information on the Rebirth Your Writing intensive and the Early Bird Discount can be found at the Rebirth Website.
September 1, 2020 § Leave a comment
I didn’t immediately consider that the publishing house my friend and mentor, Camelia Elias, has been running for twenty years applied to me, an author with a book ready to publish. The publishing process is meant to be impersonal, distant, fraught with anxiety and self-doubt. One doesn’t simply Facebook message a friend.
But then came a pandemic. Suddenly, the proposal I had written detailing events I could do to promote my book seemed completely unrealistic and pointless. The doors to publishing either shut completely or went flying open. All the gatekeepers of those doors were left scrambling to assess how to proceed. While publishing felt stalled and unrealistic, my book still pulsed with life and the desire to be out and held and read by others.
In the midst of the great global unravelling, I enrolled for my second time in Camelia’s very popular Cards and Magic course. During a rather lusty spell for fame and fortune, I remembered the collection of her own books, books that I have held and travelled with and underlined messily, books her devoted students share and post about with unbridled ardor. I remembered that she was the Editor-in-Chief of a Danish publishing company.
I found myself fantasizing about embarking on a very public project with a very personal friend. A shift from thinking in strictly business terms. Suddenly it was very clear that the dream of a major deal paled in comparison to the desire I had to publish with a woman I respected and loved and could offer me a contract that protected my rights instead of seizing them.
Not everyone is so graced with a personal friend who is the counterpart to their goal. But I had a book, and my friend had a publishing house, and we both possessed a similar spirit of conquest. Would I stay the traditional course or say let’s go all in for our mutually unassured success? Neither course provided any certainty. That was the real trick of it. If everything was equally uncertain, why not choose the path in which I got to write a love letter to my publisher in place of the typical query and proposal?
I still had all the credentials that filled the sections of my proposal and made me a great catch for agents and publishers: an Instagram following I’d grown and tended to for years, a place where I had honed my writing skills—very publicly—by writing mini memoirs as the events in my memoir unfolded in real time. I had years of being published and interviewed and showcased for the voice and experience and perspective I brought to my subject matter. Camelia herself had personally requested I contribute to a compilation that she was compiling of her cartomancy students several years earlier. I gathered my reputation around me like a cloak and reached out.
“Why not!” Camelia exclaimed when I lyrically asked if EyeCorner Press would consider publishing my memoir. But she added, “You are a winner and a star and have a bestseller on your hands. Choosing to publish with us is very make it or break it. I am zen enough for break it, make sure that you are, too.”
My ideas of success can run wild like horses pounding their way across a desolate beach. Success feels simultaneously collective as it does extremely personal. Choosing this international and independent route would be in line with the story of my life, which is also the premise of my memoir. I have spent my entire life having to get inside public buildings by the back door when stairs prevented me from accessing the front door in my wheelchair. It’s what I know best. Magically and literally. I’d much rather be in the company of people who sneak up the garbage ramp with me and take the freight elevator to the VIP area, acting like we own the very place we were barely allowed in in the first place.
I define success for myself based on how I want to feel while I am doing what I plan to do, regardless of who gives me permission or support. And I want it to be romantic.
“I want your words to go high, go a long way, and be cherished.” Camelia said as we discussed contract details. Her love letter response.
We did magic together. Those few months when it was just Camelia, my book and me, wrapped in a honeymoon cocoon of fonts and design and strategy. I was deeply connected to every part of the process. So when it was time to release my book, my heart was strong and open and ready to let go. I still get goosebumps of fleshy pleasure over the flourishes in the font she chose that make my story look like a fairytale. A story that is truer than true.
August 26, 2020 § 6 Comments
Shortly after the seriousness of our pandemic became known, essayist Justin Hocking gave himself a challenge: perform 100 erasures on Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal in 100 Days. Hocking is about 90 or so days into his project, and has released an initial chapbook in PDF and printed zine form: WHITE OUT: ERASING TRUMP.
As our stay-at-home protocols continue, Hocking is considering extending the “100 day” time challenge, because, as he says, “I’d like to keep executing the erasures right up until the November election.” We caught up with him to ask about erasure prose, politics, and pandemic projects.
Dinty W Moore: I’m intrigued by your Trump erasures for a number of reasons, but one of them is how your work stretches the creative nonfiction genre. Erasure poetry has become common enough, thanks to writers such as Matthea Harvey and Mary Ruefle, but that form most often creates a new poem out of someone else’s words. I’ve seen prose erasure too, but in many cases it results in a sort of poetry as well. What strikes me about your Trump project, however, is that you’re still creating a work of nonfiction: you are using Trump’s words (or maybe the words of his ghost writer) to create an alternate biography of Trump, but still, I think, with the goal of reporting truth. Does it feel that way to you?
Justin Hocking: I think what keeps me engaged with the project – and what keeps me coming back daily to a source text that I find distasteful on so many levels – is the element of the unexpected. Every morning I flip through my copy of Art of the Deal, I really have zero idea what will happen. Sometimes what emerges has a kind of cadence and rhythm that feels like poetry to me, and these tend to be my personal favorites. The Dada-ist absurdity and ridiculous quality of the work keeps me entertained, too. What I could have never expected, though – and what I think you’re getting at – is the way a text published in 1987 can yield a kind of reportage that responds directly to actual events unfolding in 2020.
I’m thinking particularly of pieces like the one created days after the murder of George Floyd, when Trump hid from protesters in the presidential bunker: “I’m/in the/basement/of distressed property.” In another more recent piece, the speaker describes using “very large security people” to keep the streets “free of rights,” and states “I/require/t/ear gas.” This one hit home here in Portland, where we’re concerned about the long-term effects to human health and the environment from relentless CS gas attacks on peaceful protesters. So yes, I haven’t previously considered WHITE OUT in the specific context of creative nonfiction, but the process and results do often have a kind of essayistic quality.
DWM: I notice you allow yourself small drawings – the White House for instance, on the bunker page – as well as erasures. Was that planned all along, or did the idea of drawings present itself by surprise?
JH: I launched the project just using Wite-Out, without ornamentation or color. Then I spotted the opportunity to create a visually striking image of Trump in his bunker by drawing the White House above an all-black box encasing the line “basement/of distressed property.” Drawing the White House felt risky, because my representational art skills are so basic. And I currently only have one copy of Art of the Deal, so there’s not much room for error. But the positive response on social media emboldened me to continue adding visual elements. And to add more color with paint pens: metallic gold, silver, pink, red and orange. The more recent pieces have a kind of abstract minimalist quality that I’m really enjoying. It’s a bit of a silly project, on the face of it, but the daily process feels like a satisfying culmination of my desire to keep busting down boundaries between poetry, prose, visual art, activism, and DIY publishing.
DWM: You are not just busting down boundaries, you are accomplishing something – a quantifiable page count, an identifiable project with a start date and an end date – during a time that many writers find themselves stuck, without words, so distracted by pandemic worries and political turmoil to find any focus. Was that your intent all along, or a lucky accident?
JH: I appreciate the encouragement, Dinty, especially from a writer whose work and aesthetics I admire so deeply. To be perfectly honest, I currently have close to zero bandwidth for my “regular” fiction and creative nonfiction (including another book-length memoir project), for various reasons. Feeling exhausted by our new Covid reality is one reason, certainly. Wanting to make more space to celebrate and amplify the voices of writers of color is another. The Trump erasure project does feel like a lucky gift in this particularly charged political moment, in that it allows me to truncate an authoritarian white supremacist’s bluster on a daily basis, rather than attempting to recount my own relatively privileged life experiences over the course of two or three hundred pages. Though it would be disingenuous to claim the project exists entirely beyond the scope of my own ego or my privileged position in the literary world, of course.
On a more personal note, I want to commiserate with anyone out there experiencing a creative drought during these times. I’ve survived a couple periods of pretty severe illness in my life, when erasures were the only form of “writing” I could manage. I highly recommend the erasure process as a form of creative medicine and/or political activism for anyone who craves it. I also hope to witness more folks making erasures on The Art of the Deal or other similar texts – beyond my own work, I’d love to see this continuing to transform into a minor movement. A cheap paperback copy, a pencil and some Liquid Paper are all it takes to begin.
DWM: What else can you share about your odd and fascinating project?
JH: Just a quick shout out to a few writers and works that inspired the WHITE OUT project: The Place of Scraps by Canadian First Nations writer Jordan Abel; Expecting Something Else by A.M. O’Malley; comedian Sarah Cooper’s Trump lip synchs; and all the students who’ve made their own Art of the Deal erasures in our writing courses at Evergreen State College and Portland State University. Also keep your eyes peeled for Erase The Patriarchy: An Anthology of Erasure Poetry, edited by Isobel O’Hare, that drops in August 2020 from University of Hell Press.
Learn more about Hocking’s WHITE OUT: ERASING TRUMP and purchase a PDF at his website: http://www.justinhocking.net/ The PDF e-zines are pay-what-you-will, with all proceeds benefiting Portland’s Black Resilience Fund.
Justin Hocking is the former Executive Director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center. He is the author of the Oregon Book Award-winning memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, and a chapbook of hybrid poetry/prose entitled PS: The Wolves. He teaches creative nonfiction and publishing at Portland State University.
August 21, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Holly Hagman
The scents of brewing coffee and fresh pages have always been a welcomed comfort. Somehow, whenever I enter the doors of a Barnes & Noble – or any bookstore, library, or a friend’s home with well-stocked shelves – I am suspended in time. Simultaneously, the world beyond the books chugs along in rhythmed ticks and pauses, waiting as I lose myself in others’ stories, buried in their words.
Before I can dive into a narrative, immersed in the ink, I study the cover. A long time ago, I was attracted to the sans-serif font capital letters of a new release in the YA section. The cover of this paperback book – stark white with light green hues around the thick, black lettering – had an intentional hole in its middle. The hole was an imperfect oval with one or two lumps, reminiscent of a paint splotch on a canvas had this particular paint contained acid as an ingredient. This cover led me to choose the book from the shelf, read the summary, thumb through the first few pages use my smartphone to see if the author had a website, and shell out the seventeen dollars to nestle said book between other books, also with intriguing covers, on my own personal shelf.
My high school English teacher always told us not to judge books by their covers. He was a middle-aged man who lectured with his leather shoes perched on his desk, a baby blue baseball cap resting backwards on his head matching the underlying stripes of his plaid shirts. He would tell us about author history – small facts about the birthplace of Eugene O’Neill or why fans of Sylvia Plath tend to hate Ted Hughes; information that we would memorize for pop quizzes. Most would discard this information later, but author backgrounds always seemed important to me, like a glimpse into their lives would reveal the secrets between the lines.
When we studied Catcher in the Rye, all of the books we received had different, handmade covers: paper bags scrawled over in ugly cursive, poorly doodled carousel horses, an unfortunate rendering of Holden’s red hat. Symbols that appeared in the novel danced in a chaotic harmony around the classroom. The book covers underneath these student-made layers were hard cardboard shells, and they were completely blank, except for the title, centered in a modest typewriter font.
Salinger was a favorite of my English teacher; he often joked about moving to rural New Hampshire, where Salinger fled after the fame of Catcher became too much for him to handle. He also told the class that our friend J. D. requested that his books be printed without a cover design to prevent preconceptions about his work. The famous red cover with the demented horses in the foreground and yellow text was added later, after the book was already popular. He wanted his words, his pages of prose, to stand alone, to be enough.
We all want our prose to be enough for our readers. Hopefully, for the most part, they are enough to keep them engaged, to keep them turning pages. However, the cover design is instrumental in getting them to open those pages, to look at our words, to spend money at a bookstore, to sit the book on our shelves at home and read it even if the attraction to the cover is where our affair with the book ends. That YA novel that I bought was about horrific acid rainstorms that terrorized a teenage heroine who could do very little to save anyone from nature’s wrath. My relationship with the text ended as quickly as it began, but the cover did its job. It got me to buy the book.
I hope that when I publish my first book, that people like the cover. I want someone to stop at the bookstore as they sip their coffee and be intrigued by the font choice on the binding. When they hold it in their hands, I want the texture of the paper or cardboard to be smooth and rich, the colors to be soothing and reflective of the narrative within. I want the cover artist to get so much credit for wrapping my words in their passion, for surrounding art with art.
My English teacher did move away after I graduated. I visited his classroom once after he was gone, and his presence could only be felt in those homemade paper covers for the Catcher books that rested on the shelves. Even though that YA book I bought didn’t lead me to purchase the whole series, I still notice its binding among my other books. There is a power there that I cannot explain, a magical magnetism that engages the reader before any pages are turned. I hope to be captivated by more covers as I add books to my shelves, an ethereal attraction only to be enhanced by the words inside.
Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with her BA in creative writing and her MAT in secondary education. She has also earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Fairfield University. She has been an assistant editor for Brevity, the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit, and is currently a nonfiction editor for Variant Literature. She enjoys collecting coffee mugs, cuddling her cats, and defending the use of the Oxford comma. Her work can be viewed on hollyhagmanwrites.com.
August 19, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Steven Barker
“Hiding under the table and listening to Fiona Apple,” I texted back to my buddy that asked, “How’s the writing going?” He responded with a laughing emoji and I wasn’t sure if he took me seriously.
I was listening to The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do after spending the previous 10 hours sitting at the table above; typing, deleting, and re-writing my book, which was due in a day. I was laid out on my back, looking up at the bottom of my IKEA dining table that rarely saw napkins, knives, or forks, feeling less alone hearing Fiona admit, “Every single night’s a fight with my brain.” She reassured me that I was worthy, singing, “I like watching you live.”
I was almost a published author and I’d no longer feel like a fraud when telling people I was a writer. If someone asked, “What have you written?” I could give them the title of a book to lookup in a library database that had my name on the cover. At least that’s how I expected I’d feel. Until then, I went under the table to hide from my anxiety telling me I wasn’t good enough and it was only a matter of time before my publisher realized they’d made a mistake and took it all away.
I titled my manuscript, Now for the Disappointing Part: A Decade of Short-Term Jobs, Long-Term Relationships, and Holding Out for Something Better. My editor said it was missing a persona-defining detail to tell the reader who I was—a note I agreed with, although I disagreed with his suggestion to call myself a “Millennial.” I was born in 1980 and can be called a Millennial, Xennial, or Gen X depending on the source, but teetering between generations made me at least five years too old to have written the common person’s perception of a Millennial experience. It felt like an attempt to capitalize on a buzzword to get copies on a display table in Urban Outfitters.
Up until that point, I was so high off the idea that I was actually putting a book in the world that I went along with everything my publisher suggested. I didn’t say anything when they went with my second choice for the cover design, because I could live with it, but I knew I’d never be happy with a title that made me feel like a phony. There must have been a moment when Fiona had to tell a record exec that she didn’t give a shit if he thought a 23-word album title was too long. I pushed back against a week’s worth of emails until they were okay with changing “Millennial” to “Pseudo-Adult.”
My book wasn’t sold in Urban Outfitters, it didn’t get a Kirkus review, I didn’t get requests for interviews, or land on any best new author lists. It’s been three years since it’s been released and recently I typed the title into Google. When I didn’t find the validation I was fishing for, I looked up, “Fiona Apple 1997 VMAs.”
The moon man trophy for best new artist propped up on the podium in front of her is large enough to hide half of her delicate frame. “I didn’t prepare a speech,” she says. “Because I’m not going to do it like everybody else does it.” There’s light enthusiasm from the crowd, but in hindsight and knowing how she’ll be portrayed in the media the following day it seems more like awkward applause. Later she’d be called crazy and some would speculate she was on drugs. I might have thought that too when I watched it live, but at the time I was still in high school and hadn’t yet created something that made me afraid to let out in the world for strangers to judge.
Most people only remember that she said, “This world is bullshit,” which resonates with me more today than it did back then, but it’s not the reason why I regularly re-watch a speech from twenty plus years ago. It’s when she said, “Go with yourself. Go with yourself,” that sticks with me. It’s a fairly mundane mantra that I wouldn’t give a second thought if I saw it written in fancy script on an IKEA accent pillow, but I’m inspired when I hear it from Fiona. She said those words accepting an award for an album she wrote when she was 17, same age as me when I first heard them. Two decades later, she’s still making art that makes me cry.
My first attempt at a second book was a novel that never compelled me to seek comfort under the table with Fiona and eventually I realized it sucked. I reasoned it was because I was writing at a dinner table, which then made me wonder why I dedicated a large portion of my apartment to a table that never served its purpose, so I got rid of it and replaced it with a desk. When I flipped over the IKEA table to remove the legs for easy transport to Goodwill, I noticed a message written in Sharpie: 3/01/2016–Go with yourself.
Steven Barker is the author of the essay collection Now for the Disappointing Part: A Pseudo-Adult’s Decade of Short-Term Jobs, Long-Term Relationships, and Holding Out for Something Better released by Skyhorse Publishing in November, 2016. He is a 2014-2015 Made at Hugo Fellow, and a co-founder of “Cheap Wine & Poetry” and “Cheap Beer & Prose.” His work has appeared in Salon, The Weeklings, Split Lip Magazine, The Monarch Review, and elsewhere.
July 23, 2020 § 19 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.