November 28, 2017 § 10 Comments
We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.
“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”
Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”
We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.
Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.
Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.
These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.
For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:
This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class. I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.
For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).
I wrote this during my missionary work in China.
I’m a professional knitting teacher.
Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.
Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.
Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.
November 13, 2017 § 28 Comments
We’re trying something new.
The Brevity Podcast is seeking submissions for our One-Minute Memoir episode. We’re looking for ultra-flash nonfiction of 100-150 words (on paper) and up to one minute (recording time). Accepted pieces will be broadcast in our February episode and receive a $25 honorarium.
October 19, 2017 § 12 Comments
When I teach a workshop, I like to audiotape it. Partly so I can send the recording to the class, which takes some of the stress off taking notes and lets everyone participate a little bit more. But also because ItalkamillionmilesanhourifIdon’tstopmyself.
The same thing applies to readings–when I head up for the podium, I leave my phone voice recorder running at my seat. After, I can listen–did I pause in the right places? Was there audience laughter I didn’t make room for? Often, just glancing back at my chair, seeing the phone there, reminds me slow down. Take a breath.
It’s valuable to listen to our own voices. Find out how long that piece really is with audience reactions in it. See if we really sound like a dork (spoiler: usually no). If the recorder is in the audience, it often picks up the kind of supportive murmurs and agreement breaths listeners make when we’re enjoying a story. Those noises aren’t always easy to hear in the moment, when we’re stressed about getting through a piece. And it’s always awesome to re-listen to applause.
As well as being a great tool to improve our own reading, there are places to submit audio stories. The Drum is a fantastic audio literary magazine, and Story Club specializes in nonfiction performance, with the author setting the text after a live show. The Brevity Podcast will be calling for One-Minute Memoirs next week. For all of these, you don’t have to be an audio whiz, but a few simple tricks will help you sound your best.
Check your phone. Phones usually record better than computers if you’re not using a separate microphone, and you probably have a native Voice Memos or Voice Recorder app. On most phones from the last three years, the built-in mic is good enough to get decent live-audience audio, and decent-to-good private taping. Look up where the mic is physically located on your phone, and point that end toward the reader. Try a couple of test recordings to see how close you want to hold it to your face–usually 4-6 inches away is good.
Check your app. On my iPhone, the Voice Memos app keeps going even when the screen locks or if I open another app. But when I’m doing more sophisticated recording with a plug-in microphone and an app called Motiv, the recording stops if the screen goes dark. I found that out the hard, embarrassing, can-I-please-interview-you-again way. Now I turn screen lock to “never” and put the phone in airplane mode. Some phones also stop recording if someone calls or texts. Find out for sure–or just put it in airplane every time.
Pad your space. Recordings are better with less echo. In a public reading, this is out of our control. Setting the phone on a wooden or plastic surface is better than a metal folding chair (they give a slight echo), but it’s not going to make a huge difference for personal recordings. If you’re taping for submission–like, say, the upcoming Brevity call for One-Minute Memoir–test the first paragraph in a couple of spaces to see what sounds best. Rooms with carpet, lower ceilings, and soft furniture work best. Walk-in closets are great. In a pinch, I record in my car (parked and turned off, until it gets so hot I have to take a break) or with a blanket or towel over my head. (Table fort, anyone?)
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I always bobble on a few words the first time I read an essay aloud. Plus, speaking into the recorder affects my pace. I try to tape a reading at least three times. Even if I can’t edit, I can at least pick the best take.
Whether you post or submit your work, or just listen for your own edification, taping is a great way to see how you sound. Often, extra lines or awkward phrases jump right out from the audio, or we instinctively smooth out a sentence as we speak it. Why not give it a test run? We’re hoping to hear from you soon, and we’ll tell you how and what next week!
August 31, 2017 § 6 Comments
Surprise! It’s a podcast! We’ve got a few episodes packed and ready from a whirlwind summer of interviews, so we hope you’ll be enjoying (slightly) more frequent listening. Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Episode #6 features an interview with Donna Talarico-Beerman on the process of becoming a small press, running a conference, and balancing her own writing time in there, too. We’re also talking all things writing conference over the next few episodes, and we’ve got brief on-the-spot interviews from Lee Martin, Sue William Silverman, and some lovely writer-participants from the Postgraduate Writing Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Kristen Arnett about her new book, Felt in the Jaw.
Show Notes: Episode #6 People and Books
Find out more about Donna Talarico-Beerman at her website.
Today’s the last day to submit to Remember in November
Donna’s essay in the Los Angeles Review, Things That Aren’t Theirs
Questions to ask of a character:
What do I wish for?
What do I hope for?
What is my greatest dream?
What is my greatest fear?
August 15, 2017 § 7 Comments
It’s time once again for the intermittent Brevity Podcast! Listen right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Episode #5 features an interview with Dinty W. Moore, our very own Editor in Chief and founder of Brevity. Dinty will be keynote speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Donna Talarico-Beerman, Editor in Chief at Hippocampus and the Hippocampus Press.
Show Notes: Episode #5 People and Books
It’s the wrong time of year for Peeps, but catch them around Easter. If you’re looking for Samuel Pepys, find out more here. You can also read his exhaustive diary, one of the great records of 17th-Century London, including eyewitness reports of the Plague and the Great Fire of London.
June 1, 2017 § 5 Comments
The Brevity Podcast returns with a special episode featuring our interview with Brian Doyle, originally recorded last year. We wrote on yesterday’s blog about Brian’s work in Brevity, and his legacy. Here he is in his own words.
Show Notes: Episode #4 People, Books and Places
A beautiful rendition of Brian’s poem: WordTheatre® presents Jackson Rathbone reading “First Kiss” By Brian Doyle
Links to Brian’s essays in Brevity
March 14, 2017 § 7 Comments
By Shuly Cawood
I’ve been listening lately to a new podcast, Book Cougars: Two Middle-Aged Women on the Hunt for a Good Read. I don’t know how in the world the hosts read the number of books they do, but they each read about ten books at the pace I read a measly one. This podcast is where I have learned about free audiobook resources. It’s the podcast where I learned about Roxane Gay pulling her book from Simon & Schuster. It’s the podcast where I can get someone else’s take on the book versus the movie. The two hosts are Chris and Emily, and they take listeners on a tour of their latest reads and biblio adventures, discuss cultural and political issues that come up in the books, provide information about resources at libraries, and share laughter when they find something funny.
It’s the laughter part I love—though don’t get me wrong, I like hearing about authors and new and old books, and just plain learning since I am an author myself. But it’s the laughter that gets me the most. There’s a reason for that, beyond just plain liking to hear joy in people’s voices.
But to explain, I have to tell you a story—well, actually two: one from my life, and one from someone else’s.
When I was in my 20s, I lived for almost two years in a quaint, picturesque college town. The emphasis is on “almost two years,” not picturesque or quaint. I was struggling with love and life and working too hard at a job at which—I heard through the office grapevine—the boss didn’t think I was putting in enough hours, though I was averaging 50-60 a week. To say I was unhappy is putting it lightly. I cried way too much, and I had to push myself to get through the day.
My unhappiness was not the fault of the town or my boss or my job or the apartment I lived in that felt lonely or any one thing but mostly everything all piled together—which means mostly me. At a little over the one-year mark, I wanted to get up and go, but I did not. I was afraid leaving my job would be failing. I realize now I stayed longer than I should have. Even when I had been sad before in my life, I had always been able to find beauty in the landscape—in a sunrise tinged with pink or the swaying of trees—but I remember one day feeling like I couldn’t see beauty anymore. It was winter, and even with the glitter of snow, beauty had vanished for me when I looked out at the world.
Finally, at just over the one-and-a-half-year mark, I got up the courage to give notice—six weeks, so that I would not leave my employer in a lurch. All these years later, I still remember the final day, when I drove with the last of my things on the two-lane then the highways and away from that cute little town that should have been perfect for me but instead, even now, is washed in sadness in my memories of it. They say you can’t escape by leaving. They say that sadness follows you, but mine didn’t. I remember thinking on that drive that the world looked beautiful again, and I had that same feeling the day after, and the next. What I’m trying to say is I know what it means to have to leave a place in order to survive.
I grew up with a friend who was always yearning to leave our hometown. And leave she did—she went to another state for college and then moved to the East Coast where she had her two kids. Then she came back. Not because she missed our hometown but because she knew it was a great place to raise her children. And it was. But, as her kids got older, she kept saying as soon as the youngest was out of high school, she was heading to the East Coast. Meanwhile, she was making friends, running her own business, parenting her (wonderful) children. The years went on. Her first kid graduated from high school, and three years later, her last one did. Still, she stayed put. I knew she was itching for a change, but those roots were deep. It isn’t easy to just drive away when you have a mortgage and a business and long-running friendships and a history. At the same time, my friend knew she had to go, that she just couldn’t live in our hometown anymore. Two years ago, she got rid of most of her belongings, rented out her house until it sold, and got in her car and drove away, landing on the East Coast.
Leaving took guts. If you meet this friend, what you’ll meet is loyalty, endurance, integrity, and strength. She has always been those things. But now she is also happiness—I hear it in her voice, and I can see it in her whole being. This friend loves books—has always loved books. And when she talked about starting a podcast about books with one of her friends, I heard joy in the telling. Yes, she is the Emily of the Book Cougars. So when I listen to the podcast, I hear great conversation, interesting book news, banter about the latest reads, but best of all, laughter.
Hearing her laugh is my favorite part.