What to Leave Out

August 19, 2021 § 25 Comments

By Laurie Easter

I had the pleasure of being interviewed about my forthcoming essay collection, All the Leavings, by author Sonja Livingston (The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion) for her YouTube interview series “The Memoir Café.” Being live interviewed was challenging because, like many people, I always think of a better answer after the fact.

The question Sonja asked that I later obsessed over was “How did you decide what to write about and what not to write about?” The first part of this question was fairly easy to answer, but the second part—how I decide what not to write about—was the part that bothered me for days. Perhaps this is because what we leave out of our writing is not something generally discussed.

Initially, I said that if something doesn’t serve the narrative, then it gets cut (or possibly it was never included in the first place). But I am an essayist who does not write in a strictly narrative form. Often, my essays are lyric—hermit crab, braided, mosaic—pieces that defy standard narrative form, so “it doesn’t serve the narrative,” while applicable some of the time, does not always apply. And in these lyric essay styles, gaps and spaces—what is left out—can be integral to the formation of connections made by the reader.

Sometimes the choice of what to leave out is about protecting someone’s privacy. Inevitably, when we write creative nonfiction, we cannot tell our own story without sharing parts of someone else’s. This can be tricky and requires careful consideration.

While copyediting my book, I ended up cutting two brief scenes that, in fact, did enrich the narrative. One of the scenes depicted a circle of people at the local alternative community school the day after a teenage boy had taken his life. The scene described the mother of the boy—her grief-stricken staccato movements within the circle—and shared details like the smudging of sage and a parent singing a Native American chant. To avoid any misconstruing of cultural appropriation (the singer is of Native American descent and many in the community are practicing members of the Native American Church) and to protect the mother of the boy, I cut this scene. My reasons: to protect privacy and to avoid a potential misunderstanding without including an awkward sentence about how the singer of the chant was indeed of Native descent.  

Eventually, I told Sonja that for me, the decision of what not to include is often intuitive. This answer might seem without real substance, but it is in fact a huge part of how I work as a writer. I trust my gut, go with my instincts.

After the interview, I realized I could have talked about how when my publisher sent my manuscript out for peer review, one reviewer said they wished to know more about my relationship with my husband and suggested I expand the manuscript to focus more on our marriage. In the peer review process for a university press, if the reviews come back positive, recommending publication, the author writes a response to the press, addressing the reviewers’ comments and detailing what changes will be made. This left me with a conundrum: do I heed this reviewer’s suggestions?

What I felt strong and clear, what my gut was telling me, was that the book was not about our marriage. Our relationship was threaded into the manuscript, but it was not the main theme, and I did not want to restructure the manuscript to focus on that. That was not my intention for the book.

If I could go back and revise my answer to Sonja, after having the time to obsess think about it, Intuition + Intention is how I decide what to leave out. Is it my intention to expose a grieving mother at her most vulnerable? Is it my intention for readers to potentially misconstrue a situation and perceive it as cultural appropriation? Is it my intention to write a memoir about my marriage or is this essay collection about the rugged terrain of the human heart, what it means to experience love and loss or the potential of losing? When I ask, what is my intention? and I listen to my intuition, that’s how I know what to leave out.

_________________

Laurie Easter’s debut essay collection, All the Leavings, is forthcoming from Oregon State University Press in October 2021 (and can be pre-ordered now). Her essays have been published in The Rumpus, Chautauqua, Hippocampus Magazine, and Under the Gum Tree, among others,and are forthcoming in Brevity and A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays. She lives and writes from an off-grid cabin in the woods of southern Oregon. For more, visit laurieeaster.com.

They Hated My Orange Dress

June 22, 2021 § 31 Comments

by Morgan Baker

“Oh my god,” I said. “Look at this.” I handed my laptop to my daughter, Ellie. We were in our TV room.

After many unsuccessful submissions, the Boston Globe Magazine had just published my essay and I was ecstatic. For their Connections vertical, I’d written about how stores and restaurants in my neighborhood were closing and what that meant to my family. Not only were we regular customers, my daughters had worked in these establishments. We had become friends with the store owners. I thought this was a piece about change and loss, something I’ve encountered a lot in my life.

Many readers, including the shop owners, liked and related to the piece, whether they lived in my neighborhood or another. They got the point—how we belong to our neighborhoods.

But there was a group of readers who didn’t like it—at all. My stomach clenched when I read their comments. I felt like the kid sent to sit at the doofus table at Thanksgiving. This was such a benign piece. Who can’t relate to loss? But these readers judged me, the person, on where I lived and what I did, instead of the words on the page.

One reader said he had lived in the same town his whole life and didn’t know who I was, so how could I write about this? He noted my kids went to private school (not in the essay), and made assumptions about my level of privilege.

Disintegrating in my rocking chair, I wanted to defend myself. My daughters, however, told me to stop reading the comments.

“I’ll read them for you,” Maggie said over the phone from California. She picked out some positive ones. “See,” she said, “they get it.”

When I teach creative nonfiction, readers can comment on each others’ writing, but not on the writer’s life. We are there to help writers tell their stories convincingly, honestly and emotionally, whether the topics are break-ups, sexual assault or drug use.

Knowing when to release your work into the world is hard. I revise and revise and revise again, but knowing when I’ve finished is based on my gut, experience, and asking my husband, a former journalist and editor, who reads and critiques all my writing. I write to process and understand my experiences, and I write to be heard, to share my stories and feelings, whether about my daughters leaving home, moving, life with and without our dogs, or writing and teaching. I want to connect with my readers and when that connection doesn’t work, it can be crushing.

Knowing when to let go of what other people think is hard, too. Who are these readers—the haters and the naysayers with the time and energy to write damning comments? Maybe they’re just angry and looking for a way to vent? Readers are intrigued by some writers and will never read others. Stephen King is a great writer, but I don’t do scary, so I don’t read him. I barely watch scary TV scenes. I usually throw a blanket over my head.

I want my voice to be read and commented on—but not everyone is going to like me, just like not everyone is going to like the orange dress I wore to a party (horror of horrors!) and that’s okay. Writing is a personal endeavor. Getting what you want to say right—in a way that conveys the meaning of your idea or experience—is challenging and fun. It’s like putting a puzzle together. When you’re happy with how the puzzle looks—the one on the table resembles the one on the box cover – you’ve done your best. Then let it go. Send it out, like you would your child on the first day of school. Some of the kids are going to like your daughter and some, believe it or not, won’t.

Take the praise, and either ignore the negative or learn from it. Are the less-than-flattering comments about you or the writing? It certainly stung when readers didn’t like me. But those same readers might not like me if we met at a party.

Sometimes negative comments are as important as the positive. As mad or disgusted the readers might be, I did engage them. Maybe not the way I intended, but they still read and reacted. I care more about connecting with readers than protecting myself—whether or not they like my orange dress.

Morgan Baker’s work has been published in the Brevity Blog, the Boston Globe Magazine, Talking Writing, Cognoscenti, the New York Times Magazine, and The Bark, among other places. She teaches at Emerson College, where she was honored with The Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching, and privately in person and on Zoom. She is the Managing Editor of thebucket.com and lives with her husband and two dogs in Cambridge, MA.

Emotional Subcontractors: Working with Adverbs

June 8, 2021 § 9 Comments

Everyone hates on adverbs.

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

But adverbs are still needed in your writing. Like plumbers, you don’t want them randomly hanging around, but when a pipe is clogged or a sentence struggling for meaning, you gotta call them in.

When to use adverbs, and when to throw them out?

Replace redundant adverbs.

She set her coffee on the counter, slightly annoyed.

But annoyed is already a diminished anger. Slightly isn’t further illustrating her state of mind. Let the verb show what the adverb is telling.

She thumped her coffee on the counter.

Skip the “duh” adverbs.

If something happens suddenly or obviously, juxtapose events on the page to make it sudden or obvious to the reader. Strangely often means, “I-the-writer know this is not logical, so I’ll skirt around justifying it.” Show what happened and let the reader make the unusual choice or experience the unusual situation with you.

He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. Strangely, I still wanted to have lunch.

He showed up at the restaurant wearing a clown suit. When he twisted a pink balloon into a dog, bobbing its head to signify “may I?” the perky rubber tail made me laugh too hard to stop him sitting down.

Currently isn’t needed unless you’re being ironic:

Currently, he was eating gumdrops.

Copies of his bestselling diet cookbook, ready for signing, were piled on the kitchen counter. Currently, he was eating gumdrops.

(Why yes, I am aware that “ironic” is not strictly defined as “humorously contradictory” and derives from the Greek eirōneia, in which the significance of a tragic character’s words or actions is seen by the audience while the character remains unaware. But I’m a linguistic descriptivist, so don’t @me. Or Alanis Morissette.)

Most adverbs modifying dialogue can go.

Use the dialogue itself plus punctuation to show how a line is said:

“Tell me right now!” she said quickly.

Right now + exclamation point = quickly. No extra adverb needed.

As a playwright, I learned to avoid the parenthetical adverbs beloved of beginning dramatists:

RAJ (angrily): Where is my pen?

SANDOR (sweetly): It’s in the drawer.

Those adverbs are the playwright wrenching the actors’ emotional valves from the page, instead of letting the director guide the scene in rehearsal. Some directors even cross out adverbs and stage directions before giving the actors their scripts, to facilitate discovery. (Sometimes this backfires—one memorable exchange between a director and the playwright visiting to see their script in action: “We’ve been trying to figure it out in the scene, why does she stop talking here?” “Oh, you’ve crossed out the stage direction. It says, she dies.”)

Write dialogue so it must be said as you intend, I learned. If there’s anger, or sadness, or gentleness, put it in the dialogue itself. This goes for prose, too. Let the words show the reader how they’re said instead of slapping an adverb on dialogue that isn’t pulling its weight.

 “That’s him,” she said accusingly.

Instead:

“He ripped me off, I know it!” she shouted.

“Yeah, he’s the freakin’ thief,” she said.

“That’s the a-hole who crashed my motorcycle.”

With adverbs that modify verbs, consider adjusting the action:

He turned angrily and raised his fist.

He whipped around, his fist raised.

He spun, his fist raised.

Adverbs work best when they contradict or add another layer to what they modify.

He smiled bitterly.

They ran haltingly.

She danced jerkily.

Each of those adverbs suggests “the way you normally see this verb is not the way it’s happening right now.”

In P.D. James’ A Certain Justice, adverbs suggest a contrast with how memory is normally perceived and experienced:

Memory was like a film of sharply focused images, the set arranged and brightly lit, the characters formally disposed, the dialogue learnt and unchangeable, but with no linking passages.

The memories aren’t soft and blurry as we might expect, and they miss connections from image to image.

Plumb the adverbs in your own work:

1) Search in your manuscript for “ly”—if you put a space after the ly, you’ll get only word endings (not all adverbs end in ly, but it’s a start). Ask two questions of each adverb: Is it already shown in the dialogue or action it describes? Can you strengthen the dialogue or verb to make the adverb unnecessary?

2) Repeat the process with a list of common non-ly adverbs.

3) Read a play—I always recommend Patrick Marber’s Closer, but any good play will do—and notice how dialogue can show how it’s said without many adverbs.

Adverbs aren’t your enemy—but they’re subcontractors rather than friends. Invite them in to serve their purpose; bid them farewell when the job is done. Firmly.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Want more ways to write better sentences? Join her for the webinar Writing Powerful Sentences: Go Beyond Grammar, June 16th (recording will be available if you can’t make it live) with Creative Nonfiction Magazine. More info/register now.

These ARE My Real Friends

June 1, 2021 § 23 Comments

I’ve always had a simple test to show if someone is my “real” friend: Would I drive across state lines in the middle of the night to bail them out of jail?

Now that I live in an absolute monarchy where I’m not even sure if bail is a thing, the equation is a little more complicated. I’ve also spent the past ten years actively making more virtual friends—reviewing books, sharing publishing information, commenting on posts, boosting tweets. That’s a lot more bond money at stake.

But Allison, you say, wary of the reduction of the sacred bond of friendship to an automated heart, How can you be “friends” with people you’ve never met? Social media isn’t real friendship. Acquaintances, maybe. But friends? I mean, would you really even recognize half your Instagram following if you saw them on the street?

Nope. But I’d recognize the people I follow back. Or the hundred or so who turn up at biweekly Writer’s Bridge events, or the twenty or so who come to weekly co-writing events, or the fifteen in my most active comment pod.

O philoi, oudeis philos, exclaimed Artistotle, often translated as, “O my friends, there is no friend”; at once a recognition and a denial. If we have many friends, have we any? Those we deem intimate, we grant power. Here is my secret—destroy me if you will, or as Derrida writes in The Politics of Friendship, “No friend without the possibility of wound.” How many people can we trust to hold the knife?

In the late 1940s, psychologist Leon Festinger led a study investigating the role of physical space in friendship formation. The scientists’ theory: “Friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home, or walking about the neighborhood.” It wasn’t attitude or commonalities that made friends, they found, but proximity. Their study of MIT student housing showed that the most popular residents weren’t the most likeable—they were the people who lived at the bottom of the staircase everyone used to get in and out of the building. Proximity made them more likely to meet more people, giving them a larger chance of connecting. In the 1990s, Steve Jobs redesigned the Pixar offices to put engineers, animators and executives all in one building to create Pixar’s famously collaborative space. Google puts every worker no more than “150 feet from food” so everyone will “casually collide” for “unplanned collaborations.”

These casual collisions are why most of us make our last serious friendships in college: we have proximity to our classmates, with whom we frequently collide, as well as being assigned to work with people we might not have chosen. We’re more codependent: we need a ride to the store, or quarters for the laundry, and there’s no shame in asking, or in saying, “Sorry dude, can’t today.” Common areas abound, places specifically designed to read or talk or think or lie in the sun with a book until someone walks up to say, “Whatcha reading?”

Social media and virtual events recreate the college experience. Paradoxically, living thousands of miles from most of my friends while unable to travel for over a year has built more connections than ever. I spend more time on Twitter and in Facebook groups. I co-invented a biweekly gathering where writers discuss a common topic, have small-group breakouts (Surprise! You’re gonna talk to someone new!), and the chat is alive with personal side-conversations. I’m a member of Instagram comment pods where I’m required to engage…while I grow to like people for who they are.

I don’t have to schedule time for most of these interactions—I don’t even have to agree in advance. Interaction happens when I choose to be in the virtual space. Acquaintanceship grows into intimacy through repetition. Welcome to the Writer’s Bridge, love your haircut! I saw your fabulous essay on Facebook! Your new baby is beautiful on Instagram! I have an answer to that publishing question you Tweeted!

Frequent. Spontaneous. Contact.

Am I in a bad mood? Fine, not commenting on your post right now. Am I in a great mood? Let me drop into a few Facebook groups and share information. Not every person will love me…but as we all survive publishing together, the opportunities are there to develop real friendship.

Early one morning, Wittman Ah, the artist protagonist of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey, acknowledges “the winners of the party”—not a chosen social group, but the last stragglers of an all-night acid trip, emerging to share the dawn. Strangers thrown together by happenstance and a deeply emotional journey through a common experience. “It’s very good sitting here among friends, coffee cup warm in hands, cigarette,” he thinks. “Good show, gods.”

It might not be practical for me to post my Twitter mutuals’ bail, but I can sure help them promote their book, celebrate success, lick the wounds of failure, brainstorm solutions, provide resources for their current problem, or just plain enjoy their company.

You know, like friends.

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to spontaneously connect? She’s leading a webinar for Creative Nonfiction Magazine June 16—come be a new friend! Register here: Writing Powerful Sentences: Going Beyond Grammar.

A Glamorous Retreat? No Thanks, I’m Good!

May 4, 2021 § 29 Comments

By Morgan Baker

The world is slowly opening, and we’re all trying to figure out what’s safe to do. I’ve started seeing notices and ads announcing writing retreats coming up in different locales – Italy, Florida, Cuba and Newfoundland – and notices about residencies to which a writer can apply to work in solitude and join others for meals.

I, for one, am not going to a movie theater any time soon, let alone any residencies, retreats or workshops in far-off lands. I have always looked at those writing havens with envy. I live outside of Boston and fantasize about warmer climates where I could write and converse with other writers. But, I can’t afford them, nor could I really leave my teaching job to go write in Costa Rica. But while we were all locked in our houses and everyone took to the internet,  this pandemic gave me a writing community – something I’ve never really had, and I’ve been at this work for a while. I am not a big self-promoter and I’m not particularly good at inserting myself in others’ lives.

Not only did I zoom with my stepfather and my coffee group in the past twelve months, I have taken more writing classes and gone to more workshops and seminars than ever before. I took classes with instructors I had only dreamed of working with. I signed on to the Writers’ Bridge “platform chat” and every two weeks listened to what Allison K Williams and Ashleigh Renard had to share with the writers there – more than 200 of us – about social media, getting blurbs for your book, how to be a good literary citizen, and how to write effective social posts. I am in a bi-monthly Zoom workshop with a teacher I’ve worked with in asynchronous classes, but I’d never seen her face. She’d had in-person workshops in the Pacific Northwest or Hawaii, to which I could not go. Now I discuss my writing projects with her and a few other writers in kitchens and home offices. We have become friends and critical readers.

I have learned from a literary agent’s seminar to concentrate on one of my writing projects. I worked on a piece about my pandemic quilting with a teacher in New York City, and placed the essay later. I wrote yet another piece comparing quilting to writing that also found a home, here. In yet another workshop, I was encouraged to write with humor. So far I’ve failed at that.

I met more writers through Instagram and workshops. I don’t know any of them in “real” life, but I am connected to them through their writing, and their books have illuminated new stories and deepened my understanding of the world.

I joined Facebook groups, where I stalk and read, but rarely post. I created a mini writing group that meets every three weeks. We live in Massachusetts, Ohio and Montreal. I joined another group that meets most Fridays as a drop-in session. In January I closed the door to my home office keeping my husband, daughter and dog out so I could focus, committing myself to a virtual retreat all day for 5 days. It was so successful, I’ve signed up for another one. While we weren’t all lounging on a Costa Rican patio, we were in each others’ homes. One writer’s background was a pile of packing boxes, others sat in bedrooms and kitchens. Some had home offices that looked tidier than mine. These “visits” are probably the closest I’ll get to sitting in a warm climate, staring at a view of mountains or the sea.

Before the pandemic, I offered private writing workshops in my house, in addition to my college teaching. I engaged with the writers who drank tea and discussed their work at my dining room table where my dog came to say hi every meeting. Then the world stopped, and I moved my workshops from my table to my Zoom account. I’ve had participants from California, Rhode Island and Cambodia. I will continue these even when we’re all back to hugging one another.

While the world shrank and slowed down, I’ve been busier than ever with my writing. I’m in my sunny yellow home office all the time. I’m either teaching my college classes, writing, editing for the web magazine I work for, or connecting with other writers.

I hate the pandemic, don’t get me wrong. My father-in-law died from Covid, I don’t see my friends, and I haven’t seen my father in over a year. Recently, I was able to hug my stepfather. He and his partner have been holed up in their home, going for lots of walks, playing the recorder, and futzing on the computer, but isolated. Now all vaccinated, we sat at their dining room table for dinner and talked. It felt so right and so weird.

I’m glad the CDC has said I don’t have to wear a mask all the time, but I probably will until I can trust that those unvaccinated are still wearing theirs. But when writers start drifting away from their computers to fly to glamorous in-person retreats, I will wish them well – and wave them on from the ground.

_______________________________________

Morgan Baker teaches at Emerson College where she was honored with the Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is also the Managing Editor of The Bucket. Her work can be found at The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under The Gum Tree, Expression, among other publications.  She is working on a memoir about her empty nest.

Social Media Doesn’t Sell Books

April 1, 2021 § 5 Comments

Many authors have numbers questions:

Will an agent even look at my query if I have less than 10K on Instagram?
How many Twitter followers do I need before writing my proposal?
Does an essay with 5600 hits count as “viral”?
 
Gentle Readers, I have answers:
 
Yes.
0.
No. (More on this in a minute)
 
Social media doesn’t sell books—that we know of. Nobody walks into Barnes & Noble saying, “I saw this book in a tweet!” Readers don’t tick “Found it on Instagram!” on their Amazon order. You can’t get that information from your publisher. Your publisher can’t get it, either. Mostly you won’t even know who sold the book. Are you an indie bookstore darling? Or were all your sales at Books-a-Million? If they bought through the same distributor, you won’t know.
 
Social media is not a lead magnet or a commercial. Social media is a delivery system, to communicate your ideas, topics, and point of view to your audience. To find out what your audience needs to know. And to reach beyond your own community to broaden your audience at only the cost of your time.
 
You don’t have to buy an ad.
You don’t need a degree.
You don’t even have to put on pants.
 
For authors, social media has four main purposes—but each of these can be done off social media, too.
 
Find your audience: Following discussions (helpfully corralled into subjects by hashtag) shows you exactly who’s interested in what you’re writing about. It’s not weird if you become online acquaintances and spontaneously participate in their conversation. They can directly respond to your joke, question, micro-essay or impassioned political or emotional point, and you can block them if you don’t like what they have to say.
 
Offline, these spontaneous discussions happen at writing and subject-focused conferences, community meetings, and on newspaper editorial pages.
 
Follow “comp authors”: Just as you might list “comparative titles” in a nonfiction book proposal to show the market for your own, you can seek out those authors online. Watch the conversations happening on their social media. Engage with their followers, and some of them (gradually) become your followers, too.
 
Offline, once we can travel again, attend bookstore events and talks on college campuses (sign up for their newsletters!). There, you can meet other audience members, maybe exchange cards to let them know when you publish.
 
Explore new communities: Watching what else your followers talk about, and where else they hang out online, leads to discovering events, classes, and forums. Reddit has thousands of interest-based forums; there’s probably one for your ideal readers. (There’s a 38K-member subReddit focused entirely on eating oranges while showering, so your topic is probably there, too.) Becoming part of a community now means you can tell them about your book in six months.
 
Offline, once it’s safe, Meetup is a great source for interest-based communities. There are likely business clubs, religious organizations, or volunteer groups meeting around your topic.
 
Write better: Sure, an MFA is great, but have you made a joke land on Twitter? Or written a six-part essay on Instagram? You’ve heard me bang this drum before: Social media is ideal to practice writing at the sentence level. Anchor your sentence beginnings and ends with concrete nouns and strong verbs. See what word combinations have punch. It’s low-stakes: there’s no “dislike” button.
 
Offline, sentence-level trial and error with immediate response is rare in workshops, but not impossible to find (let me know if you find it). Or get a professional line-edit on 5-10 pages, then apply that work to the rest of your manuscript.
 
(You may have noticed that when you’re not using social media, all four of these things cost more, take longer, and require more privilege to access.)
 
But I want to grow my following organically…I hear writers moan. They contemptuously dismiss social media as “fake” and “shallow.” But you’re not a spray-tanned influencer. You’re a writer. No-one is forcing you to partner with Starbucks and hawk Unicorn Frappucinos. No-one sternly insists you tweet twice a day.
 
If you want real connection online, be a real person. Join real communities. Listen to what they need. Because “going viral” isn’t 5600 clicks. Going viral is becoming a focus of discussion in the audience you want to reach.
 
 
I triple-dog dare you to read any of those and tell me they’re fake or shallow. Without social media, they would not have created as much serious, emotional and literary discussion as they did.
 
You can absolutely build your entire writing career on the beauty of your writing alone. If that’s your plan, prepare to spend hours, for years, improving your writing and thinking deep thoughts about what to write. It helps to have an MFA. It helps to have a mentor already well-positioned in the literary world. It helps to have started at 25.
 
You can also build a writing career on thoughtful, compelling writing that tells stories your audience desperately needs to hear. Stories you know they need, because you talked to them. As Sean Thomas Dougherty writes:
 
 
Why Bother?

Because right now there is   someone

Out there with

a wound               in the exact shape

of your words.

 

They’re telling you the shape of their wound, every day, on social media.

_____________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her and Dinty W. Moore for Rebirth Your Writing: A Publishing & Craft Intensive. It’s a five-day virtual retreat May 16-20. We’ll cover writing beautifully—and building platform.

Keep Your Writing Friends Close But Your Comp Authors Closer

February 11, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Ashleigh Renard

Last week “harsh writing advice” was trending on Twitter, spurred on by one bonehead tweet that declared that our writing friends are our competition. Well, if we think the prize in this game is winning the attention of a top agent or editor, maybe the bonehead is right.

But if our perspective expands just a tad, we may remember that all of us in publishing—writers, editors, agents, and booksellers—are tremendously outnumbered by the ACTUAL READERS. Our ability to connect with readers is what agents and editors are talking about whenever they mention “platform.” And it is those dear readers who are the most often forgotten about until we have something to sell them.

Here’s how to change that and put readers at the center of your daily writing practice.

Just as writers diligently research comparative titles for queries and proposals, we need to search out “comp authors” on social media. Comp authors are the established, published writers in our genre, who have a large following and engage regularly on their chosen platforms. Followed strategically, their social media accounts can help us determine where our potential readers hang out and what they already consume with vigor.

To determine your comp authors:

  1. If you could switch accounts with any writer in the world today, who would it be? Who shows up online in a manner that appeals to you?
  2. Choose someone you like. This should not be a hate-follow. You will be studying what they do well and why readers flock to them. Liking their work will help you get the most out of this practice.
  3. Find common themes with your own writing in their books and their presence on social media—grief, body positivity, travel, parenthood, nutrition, chronic illness, humor, etc—but your stories do not need to be identical, because of course they can’t be.

What to do with your comp authors:

  1. Turn notifications on for 3-5 accounts on your favorite platform(s).
  2. Pay attention—what do readers react to quickly and exuberantly? Are they following the account for encouragement, commiseration, or to be entertained? What types of posts inspire the most interaction? Does your target reader enjoy a quick punchline or an Instagram mini-essay. Do they want to laugh or want to cry?
  3. Engage by joining the discussion in the comments. When you feel you have something witty and supportive to add to the conversation, do. Comment and respond to comments from others. You’re not there to steal the show. You are there to give genuine support to the community your comp author has already assembled. Add value by listening, offering assistance, and being your real self.
  4. If you have chosen accurate comp authors and are really paying attention it won’t take long before you start to notice gaps in what the writer is offering, gaps you can fill with your unique experience. What holes do you notice in the support the comp writer is giving the readers? How are you positioned to fill these holes and meet these needs with the differences between you and the comp author? This is where you get ideas for your own social media content. Actively noticing the gaps in what the authors already in your genre talk about can even help you narrow the focus of your memoir, prescriptive nonfiction project, or the way you will present yourself as a novelist.
  5. Support the author and practice your literary citizenship. When you buy the author’s new book (because you actually like their writing, remember?) buy an extra copy and hold a giveaway on your Instagram or in your newsletter. On Instagram, tag the author, the editor, the imprint, and their agent. Share to your Story and tag them there, too.
  6. YOU ARE NOT AIMING TO BE FOLLOWED BACK BY THE WRITER. Please remember this is not the goal. The purpose is to focus your online offerings to become a creator who followers of your comp author would recommend to their friends as another person who offers great advice/encouragement/education online.

One pertinent and caring comment from me on an Elizabeth Gilbert post led to Liz responding for a brief conversation in the comments, 1600 new visitors to my Instagram account and 150 new followers, many of whom became beta readers for my memoir. Positioning yourself as a writer who should be read by readers who love your comp accounts comes earlier and is more in your control than whether your title will be shelved next to your comp author at a bookstore or whether you’ll be put on a panel together at a literary festival.

Keep your writing friends close. Share editing and submissions advice and support. But remember we are all of more value to each other when we prioritize growing our own readerships. Newsletter swaps, giveaways, and shared book events all have a wider reach when we actively seek out our audience, and have a finger on the pulse of what they love.

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Ashleigh Renard’s debut book SWING – A Memoir of Doing it All will be available May 2021. Follow her on Instagram for daily reflections and advice for writers, monogamists and moms.

Need more ways to connect with readers without sacrificing your writing time on social media? Join Ashleigh Renard and Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams for Reach Your Readers, Keep Your Soul: 8 Weeks to Author Platform.

Cover Story

October 13, 2020 § 16 Comments

Sometimes writers feel we have to limit what we share on social media and in our work: I write memoir, why does anyone want to see my garden? My book is a parenting journey—can I write an essay about addiction? But our whole selves make our creative work. Seeing a writer’s favorite topics juxtaposed shows why you’re writing about those things. Parenting informs your writing on trauma. Gardening influences your thoughts on social justice. Readers want to see what inspires us as well as the words we create.

These topics and interests are your “content buckets” full of ideas for books, essays, articles and social media posts. Everything you see and have a strong feeling about. Every problem people have that you could advise on. Every experience you’re willing to share, so readers discover, “I’m not the only one who feels like this.”

One way to name your content buckets is the #MagazineCoverChallenge. If Writer-You were a magazine, what would the cover look like? What photo represents an aspect of your writing tone, genre or material? What topics from your work AND your life would be featured articles?

A Facebook writers’ group I’m in used the #MagazineCoverChallenge to visualize and share our content buckets. Here’s what we experienced:


Stephanie Weaver: I knew if I focused on design skills I would never get it finished, so I decided right up front that mine would not look professionally designed, because that wasn’t the challenge. That freed me up to get it done and post it. I also didn’t spend much time crafting the topics to sound exactly like they would on a magazine cover.

Candice Marley Connor: being given permission to toot my own horn was very liberating. Funny how I feel I’m not allowed to tout my accomplishments unless invited to.

Casey Mulligan Walsh: The fun of designing a magazine cover unleashed the sort of thought process I couldn’t quite access when attempting to make a simple list of content buckets. Suddenly every idea seemed a little more exciting and sparked another.

Abby Alten Schwartz: In addition to being a writer, I’m a graphic designer, so approaching this as a visual project allowed me to use tools I am familiar with and communicate it a way that makes sense to me. It necessitates bite-size descriptions and decisions about the hierarchy of the thoughts on the page.

Emily Brisse: Whether it’s a product of my Midwestern roots or just my introverted self, I cringe at anything resembling self-promotion, especially if it involves my face. I like my face just fine! But I’m often constrained by this cringey belief that I’m not supposed to say that. So, creating something where my face is front and center? That took a lot of other women showing me just how okay it was to gather together a list of why they were amazing, AND include their face as one of those reasons, for me to find some kind of permission to do the same.

Sarah Bringhurst Familia: I put off making my cover for weeks, and eventually realised I was unconsciously recoiling from the idea of distilling my entire personality into a magazine cover. Actually going through my [Instagram] feed allowed me to see certain topics I come back to over and over. Then I gave myself permission to focus on those, instead of trying to stuff a whole biographical sketch into a magazine cover.

Jo Acholonu: 2020 has been a trying time for so many of us and, I think, has forced us all to be reflective in some way and so my cover focuses on the aspects of life and writing I want more of, not just of myself but creatives in general. Especially the no more slave narratives…that thought in particular has been consuming me in the best and most beautiful way possible. The BIPOC community is so rich in experience, it’s a disservice to paint us with a single brush of suffering and servitude. Not only do my personal life experiences show that, but also my extensive travels and it just feels like the more I see of the world, I realize just how many stories go untold.

Carrie Honaker: Focus. As a writer, I know what content buckets I lean into, but I tend to be all over the board on social media. [The challenge] helped me distill my “brand” and see how building a platform and my ass-in-the-chair writing can feed and reflect each other. Designing the magazine cover forced me to laser in on what you might find about me if you looked past the cover into the pages of words.

Abby: I was having a difficult time wrapping my head around what my IG feed should be about. Originally it was purely personalbooks I was reading, meals I cooked, photos of my dog. I deliberately shifted to content that will help me connect with an audience for my memoir-in-progress and the essays I am now writing and submitting. This exercise helped me recognize that I have expertise in a number of areas and they are all spokes of the same wheel. What will pull them together will be my visual voice and my writing voice, as long as I am authentically representing myself. It was a surprisingly effective challenge.

Casey: I’ll definitely be coming back to these categories when brainstorming ideas for both social and blog posts, and they’ve helped me more clearly articulate my “brand” and what belongs on my website.

Abby: I’ve already started putting together some ideas for future posts about freelance life, with the intention of providing tips that bring value to the reader.

Emily: I hadn’t realized that most of what I write and post about ties back in some way to “learning.” This definitely fits with how I experience and understand the world, so I was happy to find this overarching theme.

Stephanie: I learned that I should talk more about living with chronic illness, something I don’t tend to share much about.

Abby: My content can be eclectic, and what unifies it is me. My voice. My perspective. My journey, to use a slightly cringe-inducing but apt word. I learn visually, so seeing my content buckets displayed in a magazine cover format helped me quickly wrap my brain around them.

Candice: The magazine cover challenge helped me realize that building a platform isn’t the scary, out-of-reach monster it felt like the first time I heard about it at an author’s seminar. Writing platforms are really just embracing your interests and being yourself!

Want to take the #MagazineCoverChallenge?

Your own cover doesn’t need to be super fancy. Our group made them in WordSwag, Instagram Stories, Canva, even PowerPoint! Design skills are great, but ultimately we’re writers. Regardless of the level of visual slickness, every writer above has shown who they are and what they write. Our covers are guides when thinking, “what should I write my next essay about?” or “how can I develop themes in my novel?” or even “what should I put on social media today?” And it was fun!

If you’d like to share, post your cover to Twitter or Instagram. Hashtag #MagazineCoverChallenge and tag me @guerillamemoir. I’ll RT/repost and give you some love.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her webinar Nail Your Memoir Structure By Thinking Like a Novelist is October 21 (recording available). Register here!

Platform Without Tears (today!)

August 25, 2020 § 8 Comments

Back in May, I wrote about many writers’ fundamental misunderstandings of “platform”: it’s not being famous, going viral, or all about getting clicks on Twitter.

Here’s the main problem with “building platform”: a “platform” is something you get up on and yell at people.

Instead, build a bridge.

Your bridge is all the ways people who need your book can reach you. You are making a pathway for your readers, and it’s a two-way street. You listen to them, they listen to you…If you’re consistently entertaining, kind, and helpful in your world, some of your connections will become advocates for your book. You’ll also know more, be a better writer, and understand your readers.

This resonated with many writers. But there’s still a lot of confusion over just how to start building platform, from the beginning. From the “How do you turn this thing on?” stage of social media. The very beginning of brainstorming what kinds of outreach will engage your readers, develop your own writing craft…and is fun for you!

Memoirist Ashleigh Renard and I are here to help. We’ve started The Writer’s Bridge—a free biweekly Zoom chat about all things platform, aimed at writers who are just beginning to connect with readers on the long road to publication.

Some key takeaways from the last chat:

  • You don’t need 100k followers, you need 1000 superfans. Engagement is much more important than follower count
  • Show your face in your profile pictures, because readers want to know YOU
  • Only do the platforms you like—you don’t have to do them all
  • Create things that are fun to create!
  • Share MOMENTS not THINGS; make the reader feel something—show instead of telling.

We also talked about limiting your social media time by setting a timer and doing strategic actions, rather than randomly scrolling.

 

If you have 15 minutes a day…

  • Follow accounts of writers you admire who have bigger followings than you, and add relevant and contributing comments—sometimes you’ll start a conversation with their other followers, and that can lead to those people engaging with you on your own account.
  • Spend five minutes interacting and commenting, by clicking hashtags you follow, like #amwritingmemoir, #cnftweet, or #writewritewrite. This helps you see and be seen by accounts who aren’t already following you, and writers and readers you don’t already know.
  • Post once to one platform.

 

If you have 30 minutes a day…

  • Follow your admired-writer accounts, add relevant and contributing comments
  • Spend ten minutes interacting with hashtags you follow
  • Post once to each of two platforms
  • Work on planning your posts. Explore a look or tone you like (funny tweets? light and airy photos?) and stockpile ideas by taking screenshots and saving them in a new album on your phone. OR Brainstorm ideas for blog posts or newsletters, collecting useful links to share or thinking of personal stories you’d like to tell your email list.

 

If you have 60 minutes a day…

  • Follow your admired-writer accounts, add relevant and contributing comments
  • Spend ten minutes interacting with hashtags you follow
  • Post once to each platform you are using
  • Start/Add to your list of potential captions, by thinking about stories or writing tips you’d like to share with your readers and fellow writers. Seek out quotes that inspire you and you’d like to respond to. Put some rough-draft captions in the notes app on your phone that you can work on and copy-paste to Instagram or Twitter when you’re ready.
  • Play around with a photo-editing app like Snapseed (free! also available for Android) or A Color Story (free and paid options, iOS and Android) and see if there’s a look you enjoy unifying your photos with. OR Recreate classic Instagram photo types: hands holding something living, flatlays (your desk with your writing stuff, shot from above), a book in a “styled” environment, etc.

 

This week’s chat is today at 1PM EST. If you’d like to join us, sign up here to receive an email with the Zoom link:

The Writer’s Bridge

If you can’t make it, sign up anyway! We’ll send a link to the recording afterward, and you’ll be invited to the next chat September 8th.

Today, Ashleigh and Allison will journey through Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and answer this week’s million dollar (or six-figure advance) questions:

  • Who to follow?
  • How can I use Twitter lists?
  • Instagram analytics…um are what?
  • Does my IG need to look pretty?
  • Facebook Author page, colossal waste of time or merely pointless?

We’ll also answer questions in the chat and review one lucky volunteer’s social media with tips and tricks.

After last week’s chat, we heard:

“…Flawless and jam packed with great information and tips. Thank you so much for catering to the absolutely clueless!”

“This was SUPERB. I’ve taken several workshops on this topic. Yours was the first one that not only didn’t exhaust me — it energized me!”

“Social media feels so overwhelming and I love how you make it feel manageable.”

Next week, we’d love to hear from you. See you on The Writers’ Bridge!

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her newsletter for adventures in writing and stories from the road!

Why No-One’s Interacting With You on Twitter

June 23, 2020 § 16 Comments

You have ten minutes, so you open Twitter. No notifications. Your inbox has an auto-message from an author you don’t know, thanking you for following (delete!). You scroll for a few minutes, note the level of political outrage, like a few tweets advertising books (that you’ll never buy but you want to be supportive), retweet a couple of “safe” posts (author quotes, an agent’s advice) and a “writer lift”, and exit, mildly disappointed.

How come nobody talks to me on Twitter? I have #writingcommunity in my bio, I like all my friends’ tweets…maybe I’ll just never be cool enough to get attention on social media.

First, let’s get one thing straight: You do not have to be popular on Twitter to write or sell your book. Twitter is most helpful (but isn’t mandatory!) for how-to/self-help/narrative nonfiction. For memoirists, Twitter can help reach readers, but email newsletters, public speaking, published essays, and Facebook groups (not pages) are all better ways to connect with your audience. For novelists, Twitter is a place to build community, not show how you’ll sell books.

So what do writers do on Twitter?

  • connect with writing idols and industry professionals in a low-stakes way
  • practice writing tight, focused sentences that provoke and engage readers
  • meet other writers and have fun

But Twitter has plenty of unwritten rules, just like every other social arena. Breaking the rules requires deep understanding. For example, if I walk into a Star Trek convention dressed like Henry VIII, I am breaking the rules. If I’m cosplaying as Captain Kirk experiencing historical monarchy in a holodeck, at least some fellow attendees will love me. You don’t have time to learn all the rules, let alone parse that previous sentence, because you need to be writing. So here’s a guide to why people aren’t engaging with you, and what you can do about that.

Technical Troubleshooting

Are you following too many people? “Writer lifts,” in which everyone who responds to a tweet follows everyone else, give us inflated statistics. If Bob Writer has 14.1K followers/15K following, he’s following too many people to meaningfully interact with any of them. Bob’s followers never see his tweets either, because they’re all following too many people. Writer lifts are randomly following to build numbers, not genuinely sharing interests. Follow people you want to read.

Are your followers active? Every time you log on, check ten people on your followers list. If they haven’t tweeted in a month, unfollow. If you value the connection, find where they’re active and meet them there.

Are you active? Twitter’s a weird, bitter, funny, ridiculous community, but you truly do get back what you put in. If you aren’t responding and/or tweeting for a few minutes 3-4 days a week, other people aren’t seeing you.

Better Writing

Think of your audience. Better yet, think of a specific person you interact with on Twitter, and what they react to. We don’t have to be laugh-a-minute, especially right now, but people interact with tweets that move them. Comedy or tears, a moment of thoughtfulness or joy.

Tweet like a writer. Tweak your first draft. Is the question phrased well? Is your joke funny? Do your sentences that begin and end with strong verbs or nouns instead of prepositions or pronouns? Do your best sentence-level work.

Stay positive. Avoid whining about publishing (or anything else). Ask, “Is this complaint because I personally feel hard-done-by, or is there a larger group or principle at stake?” Then decide whether you want to express rage, bring up a legit issue to discuss, or quip about knowing you’re riled up over something silly. If you can, suggest a solution, or ask for information, instead of just venting.

Take part in conversations that mean something to you. Avoid begging for attention. Tweets like “is anyone out there?” or “I guess I’m not important enough to get likes” are unappealing. Start a discussion with a question.

Skip the ads. Sharing your newly published essay (with a quote, or a sentence about your process or motivation) is great. Sharing your great review, or “hey I published a book today!” gets likes. Posting repeatedly about your book for sale is tedious, and people will unfollow. Spend that time submitting articles or essays that tie into your book, and brag about those instead of another commercial.

Better Engagement

When you retweet, comment. It’s fine to just RT, but try to more often have something to say about what you’re sharing. Why you liked it. What makes this author or article important. How that joke made you feel. Even an emoji helps connect.

Find a couple of accounts that are just for fun, like reading the comics pages. I’m a fan of @AITA_reddit (some adult material), and I see other online friends in that feed. Responding to their comments there gives us a low-stakes interaction, and they’re more likely to see my other tweets. Literary agents and high-profile, fascinating writers like Chuck Wendig, John Scalzi, Tayari Jones and C. Spike Trotman often have regular commenters, and you can get to know other writers in discussions.

Adjust Your Expectations

Building connections with readers and fellow writers takes time. My social media helped me get a book deal…after spending five years building bridges to readers through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, blogging and a newsletter. But I’m not there to rack up numbers. I’m there to share information, make connections, answer questions, and practice writing in those formats. It wasn’t the numbers that got me the deal, it was the behavior. We often dismiss social media as frivolous or shallow, and yes, wide swaths of it are. But Twitter also holds professional camaraderie, writing-process and publishing support, and literary news. Truly connecting on Twitter takes time, and genuine interest in the community—exactly like connecting anywhere else.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Twitter for writing tips, publishing news, and fabulous GIFs.

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