August 22, 2019 § 8 Comments
Ever wondered how to get into McSweeney’s, the New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs, the Belladonna, Slackjaw, or another prestigious humor site? It’s not easy, but it’s not hard—write something very funny, make sure it fits the venue’s tone, send it in.
Step one tends to trip us up. How can you write funny, on demand?
Writing comedy is a learned skill. Yes, some writers start with more talent than others, but it’s not talent that makes an essay hilarious. Humor comes from a great premise (that you thought up after discarding 50 similar-but-not-as-good ideas), a specific point of view (that took a couple of drafts to get to) and tight, focused writing with careful word choices (that took another few drafts to whittle out of the initial bloated, semi-funny word glob).
Here’s a chance to learn the skill, and maybe win some money and/or publish your own comedy writing.
Slackjaw, Medium’s most-read humor publication (90,000+ followers), wants to support humor writers—and aspiring humor writers—everywhere, with their first Humor Writing Challenge.
Most writing contests are set-it-and-forget-it. Send in your work and hope for the best. This one’s different. Participants in the contest will be pitching ideas (so they can choose the best/funniest one to write), getting peer feedback, and re-writing. An online community will provide support and direction to contestants. Even if you don’t have a burning desire to write comedy, this process can introduce you to collaborative idea development, and how to solicit and implement editorial ideas in your own work. Plus, you’ll have deadlines to generate some specific assignments, and motivation to rewrite and sharpen your work.
The judges panel includes comedy writers for The Onion, Comedy Central, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, etc, and there’s $2000 in cash prizes. Finalists will have their work considered for (paid) publication on Medium, too.
If you want to publish humor writing, or you need a kickstart on your autumn writing plan with a fun, supportive environment, consider signing up for Slackjaw’s Humor Writing Challenge.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference this weekend, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram for choice bits of conference writing advice.
August 8, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Chris McGlone
I was writing on the back porch a couple of weeks ago, or, more accurately, trying to write, when a catbird perched on our roof and began running through every song and noise he knew. There may have been female catbirds in the area he was trying to impress—the size of the male’s repertoire apparently does matter to female catbirds. Or, he may have had no motivation other than pure idiotic exuberance. He imitated the songs of other birds, then switched to imitating humans with a few telephone ringtones and a doorbell. He punctuated his routine with random buzzes and beeps, the ever-popular clicking ratchet sound, and the almost-meow that gives catbirds their name. It was entertaining listening, but not all that helpful for writing.
The catbird’s performance did lead me to a useful insight, though; I realized that there’s a catbird lobe in my brain, up there in its catbird seat, watching as the rest of my brain tries feebly to string together words and doing its best to “help.”
If my catbird brain sees that I’m trying to write something original (which should always be the case, of course), it will help by imitating everything I’ve ever read—Didion, DFW, Montaigne, Danielle Steele, cereal boxes, etc. If I’m trying to think of the perfect word, it will suggest dozens of less-than-perfect words. If I’m trying to be lyrical, then it’s time for the ratchet and doorbells and ringtones. Why do you want to work so hard, the catbird asks? Why not do something fun instead, like Sudoku, or Twitter, or YouTube, or just make noises?
If I do manage to write something despite its help, the catbird ridicules it, echoing my own insecurity about the piece by repeating my internal critiques in a sarcastic tone—metaphorically crapping on it.
How does one deal with a catbird brain? One strategy is to just ignore it, but while real catbirds eventually fly away metaphorical catbirds never seem to leave. Throw a real or metaphorical rock at it? Real rocks can be dangerous and break windows; I’m not sure how to throw a metaphorical rock.
Maybe the best strategy is this: if you can’t ignore the catbird, be one. Write for the pure exuberant idiocy of it. Listen to the entire world and everything in it, mix it all up, then get up on the roof and sing it all back at the top of your lungs. Let the words pour out, then sieve out the buzzes and beeps and look at what’s left. It works for catbirds.
Chris McGlone is currently an MFA student in creative nonfiction at George Mason University. In his previous life as a photogrammetrist he published a number of technical papers and book chapters and co-authored a textbook. Other interests include playing Irish guitar and bluegrass banjo. He is on Twitter as chrismcglone75
August 1, 2019 § 5 Comments
If you counted backward from three hundred and ninety one, which is the exact number of words you need to complete your daily requisite word count of one thousand (#1000wordsofsummer)—less now, since with every word, every letter you type, you’re getting closer to that three hundred and ninety one more words to go goal—you might be able to call it a wrap for the day. At this point you only need, from here: three hundred and seven more words, less now, even less now, and isn’t it crazy how when you count down from three hundred and ninety one you’ll eventually hit zero? Or that you can write all these words and not say much of anything?
What this online group writing quest slash your mind’s a blank slash SOS shows is that it takes lots of words to be a productive writer. Or a writer in general. Also, which words count for the win, the tie, or at least the job getting done, and which ones don’t? Who gets to decide? Oh, good one—you!
For example, from right here, here, no here: you have one hundred and ninety six more words to go, which includes spreading out the word one hundred and ninety six into four words, five if you count the word “and,” when in reality, or at least via Chicago Manual of Style, one does not spell out words over ten. Or 10. Unless it’s the first word of a sentence.
You can’t remember exactly and you’re not stopping to check it out, because you can fix that later and look at you go! You’ve written a total of eight hundred and ninety three words, though you haven’t hyphenated where you should have, especially regarding number usage you are completely off the chart wrong, so you are cheating grammar wise but never mind. The countdown is on, and in short, or in long, three hundred and ninety one words turned out to be a lot more than you bargained for.
So much more, you realize you’ve got to sign your name now to fulfill the word count, and you include the middle initial, with the period, because the letter on its own counts the same as the word. Total word count: one thousand, including the title.
Jenny Klion’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, Tonic, The Hairpin, and the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press 2018), among others.
July 29, 2019 § 7 Comments
by Jonathan Arlan
Once, in a poetry workshop I took in college, a student likened the writing process, in a good way, to a natural disaster. “It’s like a huge tornado,” he said. “Once I get sucked up inside, I just write and write and write.”
“Yeah,” swooned another girl, “it’s like a hurricane and when I’m in the eye, I can see everything so clearly.”
Naturally, I despised these two. Writing anything of any length had always been impossible for me. (Why the hell else would I be hiding out in a poetry workshop?)
“I don’t know,” I said, unable to think of any weather metaphors. “For me it’s like when you have a leaky faucet and you call the plumber, but when he gets there, it won’t leak. So you’re both just staring at it, waiting.
“Excellent imagery,” said our professor. “Harness that.”
In high school, I’d skirted this writer’s block by “bullshitting,” which, in the elevated parlance of me and my friends, referred to any number of techniques used to make a paper appear longer than it really was. This was done to meet the minimum length requirements set down, arbitrarily and cruelly, by teachers who, honestly, should have known better. “Five double-spaced pages on World War I?!” we’d cry. “Who do they think we are, Barbara Fucking Tuchman?!” Then we’d bump the font to 14 and the margins to two and a half inches. You didn’t have to be good at bullshitting—which we weren’t—to get away with it. You just had to be shameless, lazy, and entitled, which I was. You had to be able to hand in a three-page paper with fifty words in it and just . . . walk away. If you could do that, you’d go to college.
Unfortunately, I never considered what would happen once I got there. And since high school tricks apparently no longer worked, I had no choice but to painstakingly drag words, one at a time, from thin air until I’d amassed enough of them to hand in. I imagine these papers were as torturous to read as they were to write. And while it was true that I dreamed of being a writer, it was more true that nothing terrified me more than having to write something. At the time, this seemed a very cruel paradox.
Then something strange happened. I didn’t write much after college. But when I got back into it, I couldn’t compose anything without filling page after page with, frankly, top-notch stuff. Uncuttable stuff. Stuff my high-school self would have died for. Need three hundred words on a new Thai restaurant? I will do you seventeen hundred better! Want me to sign a birthday card? I hope you brought extra paper. Oh, around a thousand words works best for your readers? Well screw your readers and their compromised attention spans. John McPhee’s last piece in the New Yorker was twenty-two thousand words and it was about rocks. Also, could I please just have twelve hundred?
Weirdly, I was getting rejections left and right. Since I knew the problem couldn’t be that the writing was bad, I started to suspect that there was just too much of it. Plus, occasionally I’d read something short and realize that the author had managed to do in seven minutes what would take me at least thirty—though forty-five would be better. I started to obsess over these pieces. Eventually, I took to copying and pasting them into a blank document and waiting anxiously for the word count to load. “SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY WORDS!?” I’d scream at my computer.
This exercise taught me an important lesson: where my writing was slow, flat, and boring, these pieces were short, incisive, and interesting. Basically, they were good and mine were . . . long. Luckily, the internet is full of advice for this very problem, much of it from men of astonishing prolixity. Orwell rails against adjectives and adverbs. Elmore Leonard advises writers to skip the boring parts. “Kill your darlings,” implores Stephen King, author of fifty-eight books and two hundred short stories.
Inspired, I went to work editing an essay that, at nine thousand words, was very safe from publication. First, I deleted adjectives and adverbs. “I swiftly boarded the long, metal train” became “I got on a train.” Suddenly the sentence was a “boring part,” so it had to go. But without that sentence, the following section didn’t make much sense. I cut it, too. Then I cut any sentence with a comma in it. Then I struck paragraphs that were looking at me funny. I hacked away at extra verbiage, looking for something worth keeping, until the thing was pared down to a snappy title and my initials. Finally, I declared my darling dead and deleted the file.
“I want to be short and deep,” I said to a writer friend one day. “Not long and flat. And cutting length feels impossible.”
“You gotta watch your words,” she said.
“Like count my calories?”
“Exactly. Be deliberate. Nothing goes in that’s not good for you. Whole grain, organic, locally sourced, whatever. You trim the fat before it’s even there. Cut the bullshit.”
“Yeah,” I thought. “Cut the bullshit.”
“Watch. Your. Words.”
I wish I could have followed my friend’s writing-as-dieting advice. I tried. But my brain doesn’t work like that. I have to spill everything out before I can see what I’ve got. Her suggestion did, however, lead to a kind of breakthrough. These days, I don’t even look at the words I’m writing. No one cares about those anyway. Instead, I keep my eyes trained on the little number in the bottom left-hand corner as it ticks steadily upward like the meter of a very expensive taxi. I watch the word count count. And my writing has really improved. I mean, would you believe it if I told you I managed to land this essay, no bullshit, right on the one-thousand-word mark? Go ahead, see for yourself.
Jonathan Arlan is an editor and writer based in Kansas City. His first book, Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps, was a New York Times summer reading recommendation (they kindly called it “a disarmingly engaging memoir by a millennial Kansan”), and, more importantly, a huge hit with his mother. His writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Tablet, Off Assignment, The Millions and elsewhere. He’s currently at work on yet another travel book.
July 24, 2019 § 14 Comments
By R.L. Maizes
I’ve learned a lot from my cat, Arie. No, I don’t spray the furniture, chew electrical cords, or howl at the neighborhood Tom (well, not unless I’m feeling especially lonely). What I’ve picked up are these ten tips to improve your writing life.
- Be indifferent. You don’t need your story to appear in Most Prestigious Journal to be successful as a writer. You don’t need Famous Writer to follow you back on Twitter. You don’t need to win prizes or even to be nominated for them. When you get a rejection, yawn, then lick your butt. You’ll get the point, even if whoever is rejecting you won’t.
- Scratch an itch. Write about what nags at you, whether it’s your difficult childhood, the miserable state of our state, or the elegance of ballet. There’s no subject too small for writing. In her lovely memoir, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey writes about the snail that lived on her nightstand while she was bedridden. The success of epic novels such as Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, which follows four generations of Koreans, proves there’s no subject too large.
- Throw up. Working on my novel-in-progress, I had the brilliant idea to give the main character a blind cat. (I know, cats.) I was so excited, I immediately began researching how a vet would diagnose blindness in a cat, what treatments were available, and how a person would raise and care for such a cat. I crafted scenes around the animal. Time passed and the concept began to seem less, well, brilliant. My gut told me the blind cat was a distraction and didn’t serve the story. But what about all the research? The carefully written scenes? And how much readers would learn about blind cats? I made a hacking noise over the manuscript, drooled some yellow spit, and got rid of it all.
- Knock things over. Break at least one rule. Your main character shouldn’t be a writer, I’d heard from so many publishing sources, and then Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer Prize for Less, a novel about a writer, and Sigrid Nunez won the National Book award for The Friend, about a writer mourning the death of her author friend. Cause disruption. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle shook up the meat-packing industry. Books like Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett changed how I and other readers view mental illness. Make people uncomfortable. If they question why they brought you home—you aloof, couch-shredding creature—you just might be doing your job.
- Clean yourself. Constantly. Check your spelling and punctuation, your grammar and usage. Readers will notice the difference between affect and effect, if a subject agrees with a verb, if you misspelled potato. A spellchecker can do only so much for you. Print out a draft. Read the work aloud. (Not “allowed,” as I first wrote.) On shorter pieces like this one, read your work from last paragraph to first to see it fresh.
- Leap. If you can elevate your subject matter, illuminating a part of history or a social issue, so much the better. I’m glad we have books like Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West to describe the plight of refugees. But don’t forget to also…
- Play. Entertain yourself and your reader. If you find yourself laughing while you’re writing, chances are some readers will laugh, too. Experiment with different elements of your story, varying point of view and tense, inserting flashbacks and flash forwards. Try epistolary devices, such as the diary in A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, the PowerPoint slides in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, the videos in Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ story “Whisper to a Scream,” or something no one has tried before. Write in collective first person like Rajesh Parameswaran does in “The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan.” (“None of us were surprised…” the story begins.) Try something new even—or especially—if it makes you uncomfortable. You might end up with a failed experiment or you might discover just what your work needs. You might even catch the feather at the end of the stick. But I doubt that. I really doubt that. You keep trying, Kitty.
- Be mysterious. Surprises are one of the joys of reading. Rebecca Makkai’s Pulitzer- finalist novel, The Great Believers, contains a bombshell. There’s an excellent twist in Pachinko, one Lee perfectly prepares the reader for, but you won’t claw it out of me. Read the damn book!
- Purr. As important as tension is to a story, readers periodically need a break from it, a time when things are going well for the characters. Have a character achieve a goal and enjoy her success or have her remember a past or imagine a future that is problem free. In one of the stories in my collection, We Love Anderson Cooper, the protagonist, who is Jewish, fights with his Protestant girlfriend about whether they should celebrate Christmas. Tension rises when the woman brings a spruce tree into their apartment and bakes Christmas cookies. It eases as the main character remembers the couple’s romantic first date. On Christmas Eve, it escalates again.
- Nap. Take breaks from your work-in-progress. You’ll come back to it refreshed, full of new ideas, and seeing the writing more clearly, what’s succeeding and what isn’t. You’ll be less attached to the words on the page and more willing to revise them. I wrote this essay while taking a break from working on my novel. Actual naps are good, too. Throw your paw over your eyes, whistle softly through your nose, and let the world disappear. Most of us are sleep deprived, which makes us less able to handle the stresses of life, including those of being a writer.
R.L. Maizes is the author of We Love Anderson Cooper, a short story collection about outsiders that naturally also includes cats. Her novel, Other People’s Pets, is forthcoming from Celadon Books July 2020. Find her on Twitter: @RL_Maizes.
July 1, 2019 § 31 Comments
By Jenny Klion
Acknowledge that you are, in fact, the oldest living being in your class, older probably than the classroom itself, and definitely older than your eye-candy teacher.
If and when you are not the object of any classmate’s romantic or sexual affection: let it go. You had your turn, and you did it well. Remember that at one time, you too might have wondered who that random older woman was—the one looking to get laid at the summer writing workshop.
Realize you may miss out on some late night social intrigue, since you have opted out of staying in the dorms due to the nightmare scenario of shared coed bathrooms. Harken back to the time when you knew you were done doing circus work, because you ultimately couldn’t live without porcelain.
Know that your work may scream Boomer themes and concerns—your poor little rich girl saga, for example—and that your story might not be as fresh as your classmates’ stories, with their contemporary radium-filled toxic hometowns and their coming-of-age slaughterhouse sex patrols.
Comfort yourself with a lunch at the documentary-famed pint-sized burger joint in town, which traffics in cash only, offers no condiments, only tomato and onion on white bread toast, with the burger cooked medium rare, and you better not ask for anything else. Do this because you know that you are not part of the popular crowd anymore. Suffice it to say that your idea of partying involves getting a to-go cup for the remains of your one glass of sangria from the Cuban restaurant you eat at by yourself.
Bless your soul also when you admit that at one point you feel like Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, whose ability to land a doomed plane on the surface of the water was due in large part to the depth of his age and experience. And that you yourself survive the crushing defeat of a bad critique, with your head held high to boot, because you’ve already been there and done that before. Many times over. And come out with something better on the other side.
Pat yourself on the back when you exchange your campus keys for a certification of completion. You have earned serious bragging rights, and that kind of satisfaction never gets old.
Jenny Klion’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, Tonic, The Hairpin, and the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press 2018), among others.
June 13, 2019 § 20 Comments
After three years of recovering from a divorce, a surgery, and a layoff that had occurred simultaneously, I joined a writing workshop. I was the first student assigned to share my work, an essay about my estrangement with a sister, and my family’s history of mental illness and alcoholism. I was concerned about revealing vulnerable information about myself, but I was even more fearful about exposing my family. I told myself I could cross the publishing bridge if and when I came to it. For now, I had to be brave enough to share the draft with my classmates.
I’ve been a part of enough writing groups to know that the disaster-scenarios novice writers often consider rarely come true. No one was going to plagiarize my work: Writers are generally too consumed with their own stories to even think about stealing someone else’s. I wouldn’t be judged for revealing personal information: mining one’s dysfunctional background for material is par for the course. I reminded myself that a workshop setting has a high level of acceptance and confidentiality, and that the masterclass I’d joined was advanced: comprised of serious writers who’d had to apply to get accepted. If anyone knew these unwritten rules, they would.
I emailed my essay to Staples. Since I hadn’t my work in many years, even placing my order felt momentous. I was afraid of sharing vulnerable information. I’d also been wondering, if in the years between workshops, I’d lost my touch, that my classmates would inform me that I sucked.
As if to intensify my foreboding, the weather was overcast and thunder roared as I drove to pick up my copies. I whisked down my raincoat’s hood as I walked through the automatic glass doors towards the print counter.
A mountain of a young man took up the space behind the desk, his long dark hair in a ponytail.
“Name?” he asked.
“Kelsey,” I said.
He nodded, smiled, and pointed his finger in the air in a gesture of recognition, and then placed a carton on a counter. The carton’s shape reminded me of a Dunkin Donuts Munchkin box. Instead of breakfast treats, it contained something far sweeter: my work. He pressed the box’s tabs to reveal 10 copies of my essay, neatly stacked and paperclipped.
As I fumbled with my wallet, he asked what I thought of the print job.
“Very nice,” I said as I whipped out my debit card.
“It was good,” he said.
The chatter of other customers, the beeping of office equipment, suddenly ceased. I looked at him, stunned. He had read my work.
“I know I probably shouldn’t have read it,” he said. “But I saw the first page, and I couldn’t stop. I had to see what’s going to happen next!”
He didn’t pick up on my clenched jaw. In fact, he smiled, expecting me to be flattered. Speechless, I concentrated on remembering my PIN. The clerk handed me the receipt and said, “I like your writing style.”
I thought of his eyes scanning certain sentences of that essay, his mind becoming acquainted with my family in ways many of my friends, and even my psychotherapist, were not. I felt as violated as if he had touched me. But it was too late to slap his hand away.
I got in my car, shut the door, and took a deep breath. Once I drove off, I gave up my attempt to make a left turn out of the parking lot: it was too complicated. Here I was, finally revealing some of my most intimate traumas, and my first reader was the Staples clerk?
I catastrophized: Would this weird guy track down a family member and share what I’d written, disrupting a tenuous peace? Would he stalk me? I’d submitted the document by email—would he publish my unedited first draft online, destroying my copyright?
The first people I usually shared my work with were friends who were also writers. In this case, though, the process was out of order: One of my first readers had been a stranger. In therapy, I’ve explored healthy boundaries: which people to let into my life, and who to keep at bay. But as someone who writes creative nonfiction, I must reach a comfort level in which I let in anyone who reads my work—whether my dearest friend or bitterest enemy.
I considered complaining to the store.
As days passed, my horror decreased. I couldn’t believe the Staples guy admitted reading my essay, but his easy confession showed guilelessness. Perhaps he was a writer, too. In his awkward way, he was just trying to connect.
From now on, I’ll make the copies myself. But the biggest takeaway came in that terrifying moment when my classmates pulled my printed essay from their folders, ready to critique. Part of me was relieved my work had already been seen by another…and that he’d been a fan.
Elizabeth Kelsey is a member of GrubStreet’s writing community in Boston. Her essays have appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine; the Boston Globe; Eating Well; Runner’s World; and other publications. She is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, where she focuses on topics such as the opioid epidemic, changing marijuana laws, and mental health.