Why No-One’s Interacting With You on Twitter

June 23, 2020 § 14 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.

Forget Platform—Build a Bridge

May 26, 2020 § 31 Comments

There are three big myths about platform.

Myth #1: platform = social media followers

You may have seen writers on Twitter with statistics like “20.1K followers, 20K following.” Some writers build these numbers with “#writerlift” posts (everyone follows everyone else), or use apps to mass-follow hundreds of accounts, hoping they’ll follow back.

That’s not a platform. They have racked up numbers with people they can’t actually engage with. They are followed by people who clicked as reciprocation, not genuine interest.

Even truly impressive social media followings seldom translate to actual book sales. Social media numbers reflect, rather than cause, popularity.

Myth #2: platform = going viral

Only sometimes! If you’re writing memoir or nonfiction, writing a “hot essay” can get you a book deal. For literary fiction, a powerful short story in a great literary magazine can get you an agent.

Or it may not. You can’t control what’s going to go viral. Fortunately, the ingredients of “going viral” (tap into a subject people care passionately about, write a unique take and write it well, gradually build your publication credits until you get into more prestigious and prominent outlets) are the exact same ingredients of “pursue a serious writing career.” Going viral is the icing on your cake of dedication and time.

Myth #3: platform = being famous

Famous people get book deals all the time, very often for a ghostwritten book. But famous people are not your competitors. Readers buying A Famous Person I Like Wrote This are not the same people seeking a book that will entertain them, move them, or solve their problem.

Publishers know that. The pool of time and money available for famous person books is not the same pool for not-famous authors.

The vast majority of books are written by people who were not famous before publishing, and most of them still aren’t.

So what IS platform?

Platform is how you’re going to reach the readers who need your book.

  • You’ve become a known expert
  • Your work ties into (or better yet, sparks) a cultural trend
  • Your topic, work or personality draws people to pay to find out more

For nonfiction and memoir, platform is building trust, not numbers.

Think about your ideal readers. What do they need to know? Where are they currently seeking that information? Writing articles, public speaking (when health allows) and email newsletters are all more valuable than social media. Instead of a quick scroll, you have a meaningful chance to build bonds with the people who will trust YOU to solve their problem, whether that problem is, “I need to understand beekeeping,” or “Nobody around me knows how it feels when your kid dies.”

If you’re writing narrative nonfiction, work to establish your expertise in your subject, with a wonderful essay in a good literary magazine, articles for mass media, or speaking to special-interest groups fascinated by your topic.

For the writer creating a beautiful and passionate memoir, zero followers is plenty. That writer’s platform is the excellence of her writing, her fascinating emotional journey, and (hopefully) publishing short pieces that build her readership and reputation. Having followers and fans who will advocate for your book definitely helps you appeal to publishers, but writing a great book is more valuable still.

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.

I use several bridges: In Facebook groups (not my own pages), I connect with writers by offering information, promoting their books, and supporting their writing journeys. It’s not about racking up followers, but establishing myself as someone who is useful, helpful and kind—without a specific transaction. On Instagram, I focus on mini-essays: “get to know me,” “hey I write things that make you think,” and “here’s a writing tip.” Twitter is to amplify other people’s voices, practice being funny in writing, and entertain myself. I write a mostly-monthly newsletter, with the goal of “feel better today, reader! Also, here’s what I’m writing right now.” I stay connected to family and friends, because one Aunt Tillie who makes her whole church buy your book is more valuable than 10K followers on Twitter.

Building bridges isn’t quick and easy. I usually tell writers, it’s going to take fifteen minutes a day, five days a week, for two years. Fortunately, you only need to start with fifteen minutes.

Make some lists: Who are your readers? What are they reading now? What bridges do they already use to get entertainment and information? What websites do they visit, what groups are they part of? Start brainstorming ways you can be on the other side of that bridge.

  • Can you write an essay that shows off your voice?
  • Can you write an Op-Ed on a subject you’re passionate about?
  • Can you think of a topic for public speaking?
  • Can you start a newsletter that entertains or informs your readers?
  • How can you promote or support another writer today? How can you share valuable information with people who need it?

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. Just give it 15 minutes—I’ll see you on the other side of the bridge.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her new comedy, The Next Horseman, is a playscript for video chat. Let her know (in comments or DM on Twitter/Insta) if you’d like to review a copy or send one to your local drama teacher or theater group.

 

 

Don’t Blow Up Your Life For A Byline

May 19, 2020 § 11 Comments

A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT By Estelle Erasmus

As a widely published writing coachNYU writing professor, and  assigning editor, my current and former students have been sending me pitches, op-eds and essays about why they are “breaking the rules of quarantine.” Sometimes they offer the justification that they have health, mental or emotional issues, and that’s why the rules shouldn’t apply…not to them.

In the midst of this crisis, it’s not the time for writers to grasp for splashy pieces founded on flaunting their ethical failures or illegal methods to sell their memoirs or build their platform. It will backfire.

As a writing teacher, a big part of what I do is save people from their worst instincts on what stories need to be told and how they need to tell it.

Students share their darkest moments with me and I help them craft their pain into stories that are published in top tier publications. I believe that care is a key reason I have been entrusted with training teens in journalism in NYU’s summer program. 

What I don’t do is encourage them to exploit their pain to get a quick clip. Let me break it down for you:

We tell our kids with social media that once it’s up, it’s out there forever. So let’s take a slice of our own advice. If you broke the law, faced down a cop, stole money, betrayed your marital vows, or played a prank on someone that ended with tragedy, why would you want to advertise that? It can’t possibly benefit you or your family. People will get mad, and may want revenge. Whether they send your essay to the cop you proudly thwarted, testify against you in a child support hearing, or take action to have you pay what you took back to society, think twice about writing about it.

Instead: If you’ve done something that shouldn’t be publicized and you are compelled to share it with the world, write it into a novel. You will get points for imagination, even if it is the truth.

Let’s also not confuse revealing, first-person pieces with clickbait. I have noticed that many writers make the mistake of producing humiliating stories that never take their careers anywhere.

The reason that happens is that those clickbait stories—even those written well—shared damning details of something that happened to the writer, but offered no further insight beneath the events. The writer didn’t dig deep.

I’m all for a revealing, first-person piece and have written many of those pieces myself. But those pieces need to do something important: the reader has to relate to the writer and to do that they have to understand the emotional underpinnings of why the writer did what they did, and then some transformation or learning has to take place.

Anecdotes need to have a broader focus. Vivian Gornick’s brilliant book The Situation and the Story references the external—the logistical situation; and the internal, which is the story. The story is the heart, the part that shows the emotional underpinnings which make up the narrative arc of an essay. Without it, the essay is simply a situation, or clickbait.

Bottom line: This is a fraught time and there are people suffering, so please think twice about sending essays into the world that open you up for many legal and emotional ramifications and attacks. There is no smart way to sacrifice your integrity to get that byline.  You may get notoriety—but not for your work. Just for being a jerk.

___________________________

Estelle Erasmus, an award-winning journalist and writing coach, has written for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, The Week, InsiderThe Independent, Parents Magazine and more. She is an adjunct writing professor at NYU and an ongoing guest editor for NarrativelyShe also teaches for Writer’s Digest, writes a column for Forbes and hosts/curates the podcast ASJA Direct: Inside Intel on Getting Published and Paid Well. Estelle can be found giving publishing advice on her website, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

 

Mother’s Day Feature: My Mother’s Belly

May 10, 2020 § 10 Comments

Editors’ Note: We rarely include creative nonfiction on the blog, focusing instead on craft talk, book news, and the writing life. But Diane Zinna’s micro-essay (also posted to Brevity’s Instagram) felt right for today.

A white toddler, her belly hanging out of her top and shorts, among chrysanthemums. Behind her, her mother holds a walker.My Mother’s Belly

by Diane Zinna

Today is 22 years since my mother died. It was my graduation day from my MFA program, and I had gone to her apartment to show her my diploma.

There was baseball on TV—she never watched baseball, that’s how I first knew something was wrong—the water was running in the kitchen, her favorite rainbow coffee mug was broken in the sink. Her dog, who would become my dog, was cuddled up beside her body on the floor, his front paws on her, upon her round belly.

She had the roundest belly, like me. Our shape of being pregnant that never went away. I remember being embarrassed of her round belly when I was a child, outlined in her many seam-down-the-front polyester pants, my friends always asking me if she was pregnant.

That night, I put my hands on her belly, and kept them there, waiting for people to come and help me, loving it, finally loving its shape, missing it though it was warm under my hands.

Almost every week someone asks me if I’m carrying a boy or a girl. People give me their seats. They smile in a way they think is knowingly. Sometimes it makes me cry. Other times I try to laugh it off.

Like on this day last year—I was boarding the Acela train to NYC with my boss, when a pregnant conductor announced, big-smiling, arms thrown open, “From one mother to another, Welcome Aboard!” I’m conscious of it always, the way my body reminds me of my mother, the way people’s mistakes make me miss her, surprise me into missing her.

I might be boarding a train, putting my luggage up in the overhead rack, but in my mind I’m in that apartment, and baseball is on, and the sink is running, and the puppy’s paws are on her belly. I think that was the first time I ever really touched it, that night, 22 years ago, from the outside.

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Diane Zinna is originally from Long Island, New York. She received her MFA from the University of Florida and taught creative writing for ten years. She was formerly the executive co-director at AWP, and Diane created their Writer to Writer Mentorship Program, helping to match more than six hundred writers over twelve seasons. Her first novel, The All-Night Sun, is forthcoming from Random House and you can pre-order it now. Learn more at dianezinna.com.

My Students Are Finally Keeping a Journal

April 27, 2020 § 7 Comments

bonner_2019By Jeanne Bonner

I believe in keeping a journal. Daily, weekly, twice-monthly, whatever. I began to keep one regularly about seven years ago when my son was born, and I’ve mined the diary for material that made it into several essays published by well-known outlets. I also simply enjoy using it as a repository for resolutions, observations, ongoing concerns and funny comments from my second grader. It’s become an essential part of my life, and I suspect a key ingredient to my well-being.

So now that I teach writing, I always encourage my students to keep a journal – whether they are undergrads, graduate students or the kids I teach in summer camp. Write whenever you can, I say. Take your mental temperature, I tell them. The journal can be a place for observations from your daily life or a running log of ideas for future assignments, I say. The habit will reward you, I add, as they look at me with an air of disbelief. Yet I have not found a satisfactory way of checking if they are keeping the journal without invading their privacy, and I suspect many don’t bother with it beyond the first few weeks of class.

Until now that is. When my graduate memoir writing class went online because of the coronavirus epidemic, I decided I should explore some of the tools of our class’s cyberhome on Moodle. Tools that I probably would otherwise have ignored since live teaching provides so many normal points of connection. Plus, how many discrete assignments can students juggle? My course meets at night after the students have put in a full day of work.

Take the forum feature. If I want to create more work for them – more stuff to do between our weekly classes – I could post questions there about our readings. But why not just incorporate those questions into our discussions?

Yet on a whim, I wondered if using the forum tool to create a weekly diary might make sense so I inserted one during the first week of our confinement that was simply called ‘Coronavirus Journal.’ I told them they should not see it as a mandatory assignment but rather as a refuge.

I wasn’t sure how that would sound. I know when I tell students not to worry about their grade point averages but rather if they are learning, they mentally roll their eyes. Perhaps it would be the same with this new journal assignment.

I needn’t have worried. Judging by the voluminous entries some have posted, they are galvanized in this hot-house atmosphere of illness and fear. Forced suddenly to live in new ways – or in some cases, return to living in old ways, specifically with their parents! – they’ve received a jolt of inspiration paired with a desperate need to vent their frustrations. The first week, the students flooded the journal with thoughts, observations, routines, rants and intimate details of their new lives in confinement.

One student is a professional caregiver to the elderly who has remained on the job because it’s been deemed essential. She says she does not mind since working means earning a paycheck, noting wryly that it’s one of the few emergency situations whose very nature hasn’t screwed her over. She describes her work as being a well-paid granddaughter and a living life-alert button.

Another student tells us he’s keeping up his daily walks with his camera. One day, he writes about taking photos of a mobile coronavirus testing center in his town. The line of cars snakes around the corner, behind them a burst of flowering trees. The juxtaposition catches his eye.

One of his classmates writes that he is ashamed to say he initially welcomed the surplus of time quarantine would provide to tackle some projects. Instead he finds himself following his curiosity down Internet rabbit holes, and realizes the limited schedule afforded by the normal work week applies needed pressure to complete projects. He fears he is less productive.

The forum is peppered with moments of humor and abandon. One student who shares a house with a gaggle of roommates muses about the difficulty of rationing apocalypse snacks when you are staring at them all day. All. Day. Long. Maybe I am easily amused but I beamed when I saw the title of her entry on the forum: “Snacks, sweatpants and screens.” That sums up our lives right now, no? Another student muses that dogs have created this virus to squeeze more daily walks out of their owners. The humor feels necessary, almost a form of medicine.

So far, my students are capturing exactly what I imagined — the small changes, the absence of one activity or obligation creating space for something else, the repercussions of our new routines (one student fears the increased screen time from working virtually is interfering with her sleep and I would agree!).

I’ve tried to respond to every post, and other students are following suit, which is especially gratifying. Students are asking me shoot-the-breeze kind of questions like, ‘Is this the time to try to read a really long book I’ve been putting off or lots of short ones?” I relish a chance to talk about my reading life in a way that might actually sound helpful instead of pompous.

All of this to say, an unusual moment in our world has created an opening for me as a teacher to reinforce the very principles I’ve been trying to convey. Indeed, the journal-writing portion of this class will almost certainly be the highlight for me when I look back over the semester to see what went well and what needs some re-working. But I will be left with a question: how to stimulate this habit without an emergency the next time I teach? When the pandemic eases off, how will I show them the urgency of recording the little moments when we go back to our regular lives?
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Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. She will be a fellow at the New York Public Library this year where she will study the works of Italian women writers.

How To Generate Content

March 19, 2020 § 27 Comments

“Start a blog!” agents say. “Write a newsletter!” announce publishers. “You’ll build readership and be more attractive to agents and publishers!”

But what the heck do you put in it? Hey, I got rejected again by the same magazine?

Yes.

Absolutely.

(I do.)

The daily grind of your writing life is indeed fodder for bulletins every week or two. More than once a week gets annoying; less than once a month and people forget who you are and unsubscribe. Try to share your work the same time and day, so that people have a subconscious expectation of reading you, say, Tuesday mornings.

I have to write something every week? What if it’s not good? What if it’s not a diamond-sharp, multiply-revised presentation of my Best Thoughts Ever?

And a blog post or email newsletter is not a lengthy, many-drafted essay. In fact, the best content is:

Brief,

Personal, and

Useful

Be brief.

Chances are you’re not the only thing they’re reading that day. They want to be provoked, or made to laugh, or learn something, briefly.

Newsletters max out around 600 words; under 300 is better. Blog posts’ sweet spot is 600-800 words. Ideally, write the amount you can write, polish, and post in 60 minutes or less. At first, that may be 200-300 words. Once you get a rhythm down, you’ll be able to get closer to your target—or turn out shorter pieces in less time.

Brevity helps you write more often, using your available time. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t have an hour—feel good that you got out any amount of words to share. Remember that the medium is the message: readers don’t expect literary genius in an email. Write your best, but don’t worry about perfection.

Get personal.

Whatever you do, make it yours.

Blogger Penelope Trunk‘s break-out fame came from live-tweeting her miscarriage during a business meeting, shattering the image of work-life balance. She personally attacked a guy on Twitter who criticized her parenting, and “I Hate David Dellifield. The One From Ada, Ohio” is still one of the most popular posts on her site. Some days, I read Penelope and think, “She’s a loon!” Other days I think, “Wow, I’m glad she’s brave enough to write this.” I’m not showing up to her blog for pure information, I’m reading because I’m fascinated by her.

If your news today is, “I got rejected by the same magazine again,” write that. Write about how you made 100 copies of the rejection, folded paper airplanes, wrote “Never give up!” on the wings, and flew them into the playground from the elementary school roof. Or how you dreamed about doing that. Or how you added another hatchmark on the bare plaster of your crumbling bathroom wall, how every day you sit on the toilet and count rejections like a prisoner counting days. No matter which of those is closest to your own experience, someone reading will gasp in shock and recognition and say, “Me too!” And then they will read you again next week.

Be truly useful.

I was speaking with another retreat leader (If you’re an academic working on breaking through writing blocks, check out Inkwell Retreats, this woman is ah-mazing). We discussed how conference speaking, online courses, and blog posts could intrigue and connect with potential retreat guests. The big question: How much should we “give away”? If people could take a video course at home, or read a craft blog for free, would they still come to an expensive retreat or day-long workshop?

What I (rather indelicately) said: People watch porn for different reasons than they hire a sex worker. “In-person and focused on me” and “conference session” and “watching a video at home” are all different experiences.

Give away the secret recipe. Genuine interest in the well-being of your readers means sharing truly useful, specific information. The more you show you care about your readers, the more engaging you become. Karmically, this is an excellent thing. Cravenly, generosity makes you look powerful. That person has so many resources she can just give them away! Passing on information shows you as connected; a visible part of the writing world.

Trust that there is enough: Enough money, enough readers, enough students, enough to go around. Re-posting a prime contest or sharing a submission opportunity doesn’t lessen your own chances. Instead, it builds your authority as a source. (Check out Erika Dreifus’s excellent newsletters full of writing opportunities.)

Generating content is not an immediate return. Musician Amanda Palmer (artistic nudity at link may be NSFW) did a lot of free YouTube concerts before running the first million-dollar Kickstarter. Cheryl Strayed wrote a lot of Dear Sugar columns for free before Wild broke out.

Blogs and newsletters make us our own gatekeepers. We slowly build our reputations and our readership. Start small. Take on only as much commitment as you can regularly deliver. Respond to comments. Engage with all four of your readers—they’ll bring friends.

Stay brief. Get personal. Be useful.

Share.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. She offers travel stories and writing tips on Instagram.

Of Bloated Prose and Books That Should Have Been Blogs

February 28, 2020 § 7 Comments

dugganBy Cherone Duggan

Books that should have been blogs. Blogs that should have been tweets. Tweets that should have been thoughts. Waffle-fed and fluff-padded, bloated prose waddles around every section of the written world. As does the well-worn writing advice to slim down our copy to skeletal leanness.

“Omit needless words,”

“Show don’t tell,”

“Less is more,”

“Kill your darlings,”

“Brevity is brilliance.”

Excellent advice, in theory. But rarely practiced. Because writers are economic creatures who respond to incentives. Money and attention are our sugar and fat.

From gold stars for effort for longer answers in our single-digit years, to mandatory 10-page minimums for college papers, our education system uses word count as a proxy for intellectual complexity. Length is easier to measure than merit. It’s more objective and it takes less effort to grade. And, the more serious and senior your degree, the longer your papers had to be.

Rewards for wordiness don’t end with formal schooling. As workers, the plumping incentives continue. Most desk jobs involve writing of some sort and few people are ever fired for producing fatter wads of work. Submitting padded reports and sending puffy emails help us show our bosses that we deserve our paychecks for putting in our hours and hitting our keyboards.

Professional writers are also rewarded by the word. Authors get more attention for novels than novellas. Freelancers get more money for long articles than short ones. Professors get tenure for publishing more than their peers. And copywriters get more job security for constantly churning out copy rather than finishing one project a week.

The resulting overwhelm of long-winded emails, hollow books, and deep-blog-buried online recipes isn’t surprising.

We reap what we reward. If writers are rewarded for length, we’re going to continue to ramble. And no amount of sage writing advice to trim our fat is going to change that until we change our incentive systems to match.

Yes, the current incentive system surfaces some beauties; Dickens’ rambling descriptions and thick-bound novels were born from a serialized publication format where he was paid by the word.

But most of the rest of us probably shouldn’t be.
___

Cherone Duggan is a User Experience Writer who designs micro-content. She’s from the Irish midlands and she lives near San Francisco. Find her on Twitter: @cheroneduggan

Copycats

February 4, 2020 § 10 Comments

CW: Non-graphic sexual abuse

Around the publication, fury, backpedaling, and consistent sales of American Dirt, another issue has arisen. Who gets to tell their story? Who gets to tell it first? Who gets to tell it with the support of the publishing industry?

Publishing’s whiteness is a problem. Publishing’s classism is a problem. These barriers deprive readers of color literary experiences similar to their own, as well as denying people of privilege the opportunity of discovery of other lives without burdening our friends with “please teach me to be better, person of color!” If we don’t publish, purchase and support books from marginalized communities, we are all poorer for it.

But springing from the issue of a previously-white-identifying author’s romantic thriller poorly marketed as a defining literary and cultural experience comes another problem: seeing a story like one’s own and assuming it’s been appropriated.

Responding to the American Dirt controversy, and expanding on her personal experience as a WOC publishing and marketing her memoir, Excavation, Wendy C. Ortiz wrote in Gay Mag:

When I learned of the book My Dark Vanessa, via synopsis online it sounded so much like Excavation I thought I was going to pass out. Stephen King had blurbed it, so I knew immediately it was a book that had been given a major book deal…I felt faint with disappointment and rage. Readers of my book reached out to let me know they saw it, too. The similarity of the stories, and how the book was being marketed, were too obvious to ignore. As much as I would like to avoid a book that fictionalizes an experience I lived, it will be difficult to… It will be placed, sponsored, touted, “dementedly praised” and more, because it has to — there was a seven figure deal.

Excavation, published in 2014, is an adult woman looking back on a five-year sexual relationship that started between her eighth-grade self and her adult English teacher, and trying to reconcile the youthful feelings of “a ‘relationship’ with a man I loved” with the adult realization that the relationship was abusive and harmful.

My Dark Vanessa, just published, is a novel about a woman who “suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life?”

Gosh, that sounds familiar. In fact, it sounds a lot like…

Tiger Tiger (2011) describes the relationship between author Margaux Fragoso, then prepubescent, who meets a 51-year-old-man who “tunes into her likes and dislikes with exquisite enthusiasm, with the result that she comes to see him as a soul mate. The unwavering laser of his attention makes her feel wanted and alive. In a prologue to her [memoir], the adult Margaux writes that spending time with a paedophile ‘can be like a drug high.’ In her own case, it was a drug she was unable to give up.”

Huh. Oh, wait, maybe the one I’m thinking of is a movie?

In The Tale (2018) Jennifer Fox is in her 40s when her mother discovers an essay, written when Jennifer was 13, about a “relationship” with her adult coach. Jennifer, played by Laura Dern, dismisses her mother’s concern, but after re-reading the essay Jennifer looks back on her life. While she remembers herself being older and sophisticated, she discovers old photos showing how small and childlike she was. The movie is based on the director (Jennifer Fox)’s own life.

Or that other movie, An Education, based on Lynn Barbor’s 2003 essay for Granta, her 2009 essay for The Guardian and her memoir about being seduced by an older man at age 16, and shown the sparkling life of cosmopolitan London before realizing her ‘boyfriend’ was a married con man?

Or maybe the plots of all these women’s stories just ring true for me, because ten years ago, I looked back and thought, Maybe that 28-year-old dating 15-year-old me did not have my best interests at heart…but I’m still friends with the 45-year-old who dated 18-year-old me, so what’s the difference?

It’s (sadly) not uncommon to look back as an adult and realize a childhood/very-young-adulthood relationship we believed ourselves an active participant in was not as subject to our own volition as we thought. It’s not uncommon to feel that we gained some positive things from unequal and abusive relationships. It’s less common to write a whole book about it, but I still wouldn’t call four books and two movies in the space of ten years (off the top of my head) rare.

It is not sour grapes to advocate for representation, or even to point out that a memoir by a woman of color was a harder sell than a novel about the same subject, seven years later, by a white author. Those are valid, important and necessary concerns. But when we look for the reasons one book was more embraced by publishing than another, it’s usually not “somebody stole my life.”

As memoirists, we are constantly mining our own experience to find an original telling of a universal tale. It is not our life’s singularity, but the individuality of our voice, our approach, and our personal revelations that make our memoir new. A truly one-of-a-kind story might not even resonate with readers, because part of the value of memoir is seeing ourselves in someone else’s world. True stories change lives because they show, You’re not alone. You’re not the only one who felt like that. You’re not the only one that happened to.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. Find her on Instagram for true stories that may be just like yours.

Saving Family History with Tumblr

October 17, 2019 § 18 Comments

By Kat Fitzpatrick

I inherited hundreds of uncaptioned photos from my parents.

Though I have no desire to archive every moment of their lives, I do wish that some of those photos had been annotated to provide context, dimension, and color. Even something as simple as this would have been great:

July 16, 1976—Grandpa loved to fish. Sometimes it drove Grandma nuts. On this beautiful summer day in Seattle, she grabbed the pole to make fun of his style. He didn’t smoke, so the cigarette clenched in her teeth was all her. Shortly after this fishing expedition they went to a bicentennial celebration downtown—1976 was the two-hundred-year anniversary of our country, after all.

A caption like this may have lain in wait for years until someone opened the scrapbook, but it would have still been there, inked into history—a date, a setting, a personal glimpse. I can’t go back in time and magically inscribe such captions but there are ways to start now to capture memories as a gift for future generations.

Some may believe that we are already doing that with Instagram or Facebook. However, those posts tend to be quick entries aimed at our immediate and intimate audience. They already know a great deal about us so there is no need to provide any background information. For instance, if you were posting a current photo like the grandparent-fishing caper, you wouldn’t usually notate that Grandma smokes and Grandpa doesn’t—current family and friends don’t need to be reminded. But when considering generations to come, such details become relevant nuances we don’t want to leave out.

As I played with this idea of saving moments of history, I stumbled upon an easy and satisfying way to share them with others today and to preserve them for tomorrow: I keep a running blog of “Flash-Memoirs”—short social-media entries describing a photo, a clipping, or even just a memory based on an image I like.

With this practice I have preserved such stories as:

  • the time my mom nearly stole an ashtray from the Korean De-Militarized Zone (she ultimately bought it)
  • the way my pioneer ancestors patrolled their Idaho ranch on horseback
  • how my father, despite his long CIA career, believed that in the end, “it is the common people who call the shots.”

I would like to encourage you to take up this simple and streamlined way to preserve your family history. Here is my method in three steps:

  1. Choose a photo or a memory
  2. Write a short essay (200-400 words) including date and time, people inside and outside the immediate scene, setting, and some historical context if possible, e.g., it was the year of the bicentennial celebration.
  3. Upload to Instagram to be enjoyed by friends and family today…
  4. …and to Tumblr to archive for future generations.

It is easy to post to both places at the same time because Instagram has a “push” feature that can simultaneously post to the blogging site Tumblr. (This feature also allows you to post to Facebook and Twitter, if you so desire.)

In case you are not familiar with it, Tumblr (pronounced “tumbler”) is a social networking site for microblogging—short posts that can include text, images, video, audio, and links to other articles or sites. A Tumblr account can be public or kept private, a nice feature for those just wishing to archive and not to create additional social media interactions. My intention using Tumblr is not to attract more current readers, and I send only those flash-memoir posts to Tumblr because I want that “blog” to contain only my historical stories.

The advantages of posting my flash-memoirs to Instagram and Tumblr at the same time:

  1. Instagram allows for 400 words or less, so I must keep my entries succinct. Quite a discipline!
  2. By only archiving specific posts, I can go to my Tumblr site to scroll through family-history entries only—an easy walk down memory lane.
  3. Eventually I will use a service such as BlookUp or Blog2Print to transform my Tumblr into a printed book.

I love the idea that one day those bits of history I have captured will be available for my family to peruse on real live paper. If you heed my encouragement and save some history in this way too, we may just inspire some real old-fashioned social media interaction.

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Kat Fitzpatrick, M.F.A, is a New York-based writer and artist who works with memoir, particularly her family history in Vietnam. Her work includes the The Fight to Write: What the Vietnam War Taught Me About Truth & Writing, and the humorous novel, Kat Manudu’s Holistic Advertising Agency. See her flash-memoir collection at www.tumblr.com/blog/flashmemoir or follow her on Instagram at kat_adventures22.

Of Reading and Culture: An Interview with Vivian Gornick (Part 3)

August 28, 2019 § 7 Comments

Brevity’s Associate Editor Kathleen B. Jones, author of Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, interviewed memoirist Vivian Gornick about The Situation and The Story, her career as an author, and her other works.

The interview is divided into three parts. Part One, “Structure is Everything,” and Part Two, “The Other in Oneself,” ran earlier this week.

gornickPart 3: Modes of Writing and the Art of Structure

JONES: A lot has changed in the world of writing since you published The Situation and The Story in 2001…

GORNICK: Really?? No kidding? That went right by me. (Laughs)

JONES: Oh, c’mon.

GORNICK: Well, what do you mean by that?

JONES: I’m just thinking about the explosion of the internet, the development of other arenas for writing, whatever you think of them, blogs, other forms of instant writing. I wonder what effect you think this has had on literary nonfiction, if anything?

GORNICK: Well, that’s something even I think about a lot, by which I mean, I’m completely out of the world of the internet. Totally. I don’t do anything. I’m not on any of these social media outlets. I don’t read blogs. I don’t do anything. However, even I have become aware of, as you say, this explosion of intensely immediate—I don’t really look upon it as writing—it’s an intensely immediate form of expressiveness through words. I look on it mostly as venting more than anything else.

Sometimes a blog is called to my attention and I read it and I think, this person is just free-associating here on the page. And it can go on and on and on because they’re not really writing, they’re waiting to figure out what they think themselves. Then again, there are times when I have to look something up myself and then I will stumble on these thousands of reviews of a book that I was looking for or wanting some more information about, and I’m amazed by how intelligent and thoughtful so many of them are. They’re usually short reviews.

For instance, I was writing a piece on Elizabeth Bowen some time ago and I looked something up on the internet about one of her books, a piece of information, and I stumbled on a variety of reviews, peoples responses. Elizabeth Bowen is a hard writer to truck with; her syntax is extremely demanding and, because her sentences are so convoluted, many people are put off. But there was so much smart, thoughtful responsiveness and often from people who said, ‘I’m not much of a reader but I stumbled on her and this is what she made me feel.’ But this is not writing. None of this is about writing.

It reminds me of the fact that, you know, children have all kinds of minor talents, a child can suddenly produce a poetic sentence. I remember a teacher once did a study in which he made all these 6 and 7 year old kids write something about some subject and one of these kids wrote, and I still can remember this, ‘I am so sad that my tears go around the corner before they come out of my eyes.’ So now, I’m sure his mother put that sentence up on the refrigerator and announced, ‘My kid is a genius and he’s going to be a writer.’ Well, he wasn’t a genius and he wasn’t going to be a writer. And in all the years of teaching, there’s never been a single student who didn’t have one piece in them. But this is not writing.

JONES: Well, some blogs are different. Brevity’s blog has a blog of very focused essays, usually by teachers of writing for other writers about some element of craft, and they’re edited.

GORNICK: OK. Oh, well that’s different. Then that resembles the world of print. The old world of print.

JONES: Exactly, so in a sense what I’m saying….

GORNICK: So that hasn’t changed…

JONES: No; there’s a shift where what you would call writing has another venue for being circulated.

GORNICK: Yes, yes, right. So it’s electronic now instead of print.

kathleenbjonesJONES: In books too, there’s the potential for even the form of the book to be exploded again. The way we moved from the illuminated manuscripts to the printing press…

GORNICK: Yeah (quizzically).

JONES: Now, with this electronic form, there’s the possibility for layers to be added.

GORNICK: How?

JONES: Visual, aural…I have a friend who’s a poet who experimented with different ways of integrating forms of visual and aural creativity into a set of poems about a river.

GORNICK: You mean you’d be reading a book on your computer and suddenly it would speak to you?

JONES: No, it wouldn’t speak to you, but the possibility would be there for visual images and sound to be pulled up, to explore other dimensions about what’s been written.

GORNICK: None of that means anything to me. (Laughs) I will live and die a very conventional reader. What I require from writing is structure, and language, and development that is conscious. What can I tell you.

JONES: Because other modes would be distracting?

GORNICK: Yes.

JONES: Pulling you out of the flow of the writing, you’re pulled out of the story?

GORNICK: RIGHT! Exactly, you are pulled out of the story.

JONES: Let’s talk a little about structure in relation to The Odd Woman and the City. How did you discover the structure for this?

GORNICK: Ah!

JONES: I read it the first time all the way through. Having just reread it, I see how you’re making quite substantial leaps from one thing to another, your conversations with Leonard then on to something else.

GORNICK: I wrote it 50 times.

JONES: 50 times?

GORNICK: I put this thing together differently 50 times until it felt right. I can’t really say anything more than that. For years, I wanted to write about Leonard and me because I thought we were a paradigmatic friendship. Between the two of us, the things we said to each other over these 20-25 years, were really sufficiently indicative of a generation, of what we were all living through. And I couldn’t find a way; I didn’t know how to do it.

Then I discovered what I always knew about my relationship of walking through the streets of the city and I thought, ah, I can do it that way, if I can figure out how to write about walking in the street and the adventures that I have with people and then using Leonard and me, not as the main characters, but like a Greek chorus. So that was the first part. I got that and I knew that was right.

And then…well that was it, there were so many other things I wanted to fit in and I didn’t know how to do it until I did it. The style I adopted over many books is collage and collage depends on your intuition for what goes with what. And I can’t explain that, when the transition feels right and when it feels strained and when it doesn’t. When does one thing lead naturally to another? I can’t tell until it feels right. And also, before I wrote the book, I had about 30 pages of this stuff and I sent it to a friend of mine, then the editor of the Paris Review, and he loved it and said, I’d like to publish this, if you’ll allow me to fool around; I don’t think it’s in the right order. And he had a little bit of genius. So he changed the order of things and once he did, I saw it differently myself, and saw he was right, and I took my lead from that. I was able to think more clearly about what should go where. But there are essentially two things: the incidents in the street, and me and Leonard.

JONES: But then that is refracted through many other things, other friendships. With Emma for instance.

GORNICK: And literary stuff, little bits and nuggets of literary history, and life that I just throw in. It all began to feel right, once it did feel right. I can’t really tell you how.

JONES: What are you reading now and what are you writing now, and how are the two connected?

GORNICK: Well, I just finished writing, but I can’t seem to finish it. For two years now, I’ve been writing a book about rereading—rereading books I loved as a young woman. So it’s that hybrid form of memoir and criticism, in which I describe myself at various stages, reading different books. I start with Sons and Lovers, a book I read three times between the ages of 20 and 35, and each time, identified with another character, and I show why and how. It’s a very short book, really like a book-length essay. But I can’t seem to bring it to conclusion. I’m having a hard time.

JONES: You recently wrote about Doris Lessing in the New York Review of Books.

GORNICK: That’s right, the cats. Actually, that little story about Lessing and the cats was written in one of my low points in this book. I did that for comic relief, to amuse myself.

JONES: Yeah, but you had these insights about yourself. What you got from reading Doris Lessing at this point in your life. What you heard in her that might have attracted you before, but now repelled you. Her lack of compassion.

GORNICK: Right. Her inability to stop protecting herself. I have to explain that better. I have to rewrite that part.

JONES: I read the D. H. Lawrence excerpt in Harpers.

GORNICK: That’s the first piece in the book. And then I do Collette and Marguerite Duras, Elizabeth Bowen, Natalia Ginsburg, a lot of women. Delmore Schwartz, Thomas Hardy, all very short. Whole thing is 120 pages. And I can’t finish it. I am so exhausted. This past week I swore I would make all the changes by Thanksgiving. But I got this cold and my head is in a fog. So I am torturing myself because I think I should sit down at the desk every day…By Christmas it will be finished.

JONES: What else are you reading?

GORNICK: When I am in this mood I’m reading three things at once. Actually what I read to calm myself when I’m feeling rattled is George Orwell.

JONES: (Laughs) You find Homage to Catalonia or 1984 calming?

GORNICK: Not those books…There’s a four-volume work of all his journalism, written during the Second World War, with a huge amount of literary work, book reviews, essays. A lot on literature. He wrote as an English socialist, and critic of socialism, but as an intensely political man. He wrote because of the politicalness of life. He was really extraordinarily educated. In one long piece, an excerpt from a book he was writing about the English people, there are parts where he’s trying to pull apart the English language grammatically to shed light on the English people. And he’s so brilliant and knows so much. I don’t know anywhere near enough to process this grammatical essay. During the Second World War, for two years, he wrote a column called ‘As I Please’ for a newspaper called Tribune in England. You would be amazed at the things he wrote—a nice cup of tea, the perfect pub, American soldiers on the street—and I read these things, they’re small gems. His voice is so clear, so direct, you would think it was yesterday. He’s writing from 1942, I feel like he just wrote it yesterday. It calms me.

There was a time, in every culture I think, when the culture was in trouble, people read. And it certainly doesn’t feel like that’s happening now.

__

Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Loveand Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction InternationalMr. Beller’s NeighborhoodThe Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She recently served as Brevity‘s Associate Editor while completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University.

 

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