January 1, 2021 § 10 Comments
By Sweta Srivastava Vikram
Hello, 2021! The New Year is here! After the theatrics and tragedies of 2020, we have learned that life happens when we are least expecting it. No matter what, we have to carve out time for our creativity (whatever that might look for you on a given day) and protect it fiercely without taking on the performance pressures. As Franz Kafka said, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”
Everyone is different as is their relationship with writing. Writing sustained me during the pandemic. I am not surprised because writing is how I make sense of the world. It’s how I grieve and cope. I wrote every day to center myself. As a result, the manuscript for my upcoming collection of essays, A Piece of Peace, is now with the publisher and the book comes out in fall of 2021.
To me, writing is like meditating and practicing yoga asanas. It’s a daily practice and has very little to do with whether I want to or not. You show up with dedication and devotion daily—without any ego or expectations. Prepared to be surprised and don’t judge the outcome. Focus on your journey. You don’t compare yourself to others or even your own self. On some days, you will finish an entire story or an essay; on other days, a blank page will taunt you. Don’t allow your moods, inner voice, and external environment (sass, competition, negativity, cold days, rejections etc. etc.) to influence your dedication to the craft. Show up. Show up. Show up. If we all wrote only when we felt like it, imagine the number of books the world would be deprived of?
Here is what fuels creativity (at least mine): Move your body daily, floss your mind at least every 24 hours aka meditate, make healthy food choices 80% of the times, make time for fun, surround yourself with good people, and learn to be happy for other writers and their successes. Also, read a lot. This is one way of approaching creativity and establishing your relationship with it. But it is not the only way.
I asked four women writers if they could share their advice about three goals every writer should make in the New Year. Here is what they had to say:
Sayantani Dasgupta, Assistant Professor, Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between shared the following three bits of advice:
1. Give yourself the tiniest, most manageable daily writing goal. In my case, I have assigned myself to write ten sentences every day. I think it’s especially useful during this Pandemic time when every day can feel the same, it’s important to find a way to separate one from the other. If on some days, the 10 sentences become 20 sentences instead, or 20 pages, that’s great! But if not, that’s also fine. Somedays, my 10 sentences are just that. Somedays, they are nothing more than 10 words, each jotted on a different line. And that’s okay.
2. Build a cheerleading team of 2-3 friends who are also writers. They may or may not be tasked with reading your drafts but they absolutely must be willing to listen to you talk about what you are struggling with, be it a godawful character that refuses to die, or a poem that’s not cooperating in terms of strong images, or the literary agent who has ignored your last three emails. Please remember it’s not a one-way street. Invest in these friends by giving them the gift of your time and attention.
3. Be genuinely happy with other writers’ successes. Simply put, don’t be an asshole. No matter how successful you become, there will always be writers who are smarter than you, who sell more books, land more interviews, whose spouses take them to Paris and bring them breakfast in bed, and who photograph well, no matter the camera angle. Don’t hold on to envy or jealousy. It’s not good for your mind or body. And it’s most definitely not good for your writing or creative process. Find ways to improve your craft instead of bringing down others, whether literally, or in your own mind.
Rachel Hills of Brooklyn, New York and author of The Sex Myth recommends:
1. Write without your audience in mind. In this era of online comments and social media, writers have immediate access to what people think of our work – and that’s not always a good thing. Earlier in my career, I constantly had the potential responses of my audience playing in my head as I wrote, and I think it made me less brave and interesting than I might have been. Now I try to practice putting the audience aside entirely – at least when I’m writing the first draft – and I find it helps me to achieve better flow and deeper insights.
2. Make a practice of showing up for your work. It’s obvious, but it needs to be said: the only way to write a book (or a poem, or a blog post) is to sit down and write it. Make a practice of showing up for your work, whether it’s daily, weekly, or something in between.
3. Take the pressure off. It’s easier to show up to your writing practice if you make it fun. You don’t need to produce a perfect draft every time you sit down at your laptop or your notebook. You just have to write something. Learn to take pleasure in letting your thoughts unfold and find their form.
Jen Gilroy who lives in a small town in Eastern Ontario, Canada and has written the book, A Wish in Irish Falls, says:
1. Make practicing self-care a daily habit. Nurturing yourself also nurtures your writing. Taking even thirty minutes each day to do something for your well-being boosts mental health and enhances creativity, in turn increasing your happiness and productivity as a writer.
2. Set small, measurable goals and reward yourself for achieving them. Instead of setting yourself a big goal like “write a book,” break that goal down into smaller, more manageable chunks such as “in the next two weeks I will write 1,000 words each day.” Then give yourself a reward (watching a movie works for me) when you reach your goal.
3. Don’t compare yourself to other writers and limit social media scrolling if it contributes to self-doubt. In writing, as in most areas of life, it’s easy to compare yourself to someone else and think you’ve fallen short. However, every writing journey is different and even the most successful authors face rough patches. Support other writers and celebrate their success, but focus on your story and your career or, as many of us were told at school: “Keep your eyes on your own paper.”
Lisa Montanaro, who lives in Davis, California, and is working on her debut novel (The title of her WIP is Truth and Other Inconveniences) advises:
1) Honor Appointments with Yourself to Write: I’m a certified organizing and productivity consultant, so my biggest piece of advice is to carve out time for your writing on your calendar by scheduling it in as an appointment. And then honor those appointments with yourself just like you would an appointment with someone else. We tend to honor appointments for official meetings, with other people, or for events. Do the same with your writing sessions!
2) Move Your Body Each Day: Writing is often done sitting down for long stretches of time. Make it a point to move your body each day. Whether that consists of light stretching, yoga poses, a walk outside, calisthenics, or more strenuous exercise like a bike ride or hike—it doesn’t matter as long as it’s movement. I love the app Down Dog and the free Namaste Yoga classes on Amazon Prime. But my favorite activity is cycling. I bring my iPhone and brainstorm ideas for my WIP and dictate them when I pull over to drink water. Dictating ideas for your writing is another great way to keep the writing going when you’re not sitting with your Butt in Chair!
3) Get a Writing Partner: My writing partner and I have been together for almost three years now. I don’t know where I would be without her! We use Facebook messenger to communicate almost daily, do video chats periodically, brainstorm ideas for our WIPs together, and swap pages. We hold each other accountable, offer a shoulder to cry on, and cheer each other on. I would not want to be on this writing journey without her! I highly recommend finding another writer that you can partner up with. Of course, you have to make sure that you’re a good fit. But once you find a great match, it’s worth it’s weight in gold.
Be it for two hours or ten minutes, include exercising your writing muscles as part of your routine. Be it daily or once a week, schedule time in your calendar for writing. It’s self-care, it’s your dedicated me-time, and much more. As Pattabhi Jois says, Practice and all is coming.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 12 books, and Ayurveda and mindset coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is a trained yogi and certified Ayurveda health coach, is on the board of Fly Female Founders, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe. She also teaches yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as well incarcerated men and women. Find her on: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
January 1, 2021 § 8 Comments
To: Self-Employed Writer
From: The CHFO (Chief High-Five Officer)
Date: January 1, 2021
Subject: You’ve Earned Employee of the Year! Again!
I am writing to congratulate you on the commendable efforts and energy you put into delivering on your 2020 production quota. Nobody here wrote more words on more pages than you. You wrote and rewrote. You edited and edited again. Yes, you really did type this year.
Your ability to keep the volume of rejection letters organized was exemplary. Each one that came in the door was noted and filed, then cancelled out by another submission. Another swing at the piñata. You swatted so many times this past year that your arm has grown thick and strong. There’s new work out there because of it and more to come if you keep at it. Note for 2021: swing with your left for a while to even out the situation.
Thanks especially for your dedication and commitment to attendance. This past year coughed up more challenges than most. You could have sat in the corner, curled in a ball, rocking and humming, but you showed up on a somewhat regular basis instead. For your year of diligent service, I applaud you. I applaud all of the writers out there. You deserve a raise!
Windy Lynn Harris writes personal essays, short stories, flash, nonfiction, and novels from her desk in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. Her work has been published in The Literary Review, JMWW, Pithead Chapel, The Sunlight Press, and many other journals. Find her at www.windylynnharris.com.
December 31, 2020 § 27 Comments
2017 2020? Yeah, this post I wrote three years ago is STILL ASTOUNDINGLY RELEVANT. You know that feeling of low-grade background stress you’ve sustained for nearly four years, ramping up a level each year? You’re not alone, fellow writer.
So 2020 was a dumpster on fire while swept away in a flood, yes, but how was your writing? Because now is a great time to consider what you did. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and couldn’t. Let’s genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments, together.
Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?
Get a piece accepted? Submit to places you want to be accepted?
Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?
Make it to an online workshop or reading or write-in?
Read a book you really loved? Or one that taught you something about writing? Tried some exercises? Researched something new?
They all count.
Bask in the feeling of accomplishment. If you’re a journal-keeper, make some notes about what felt great to get done, and why it worked to do it that way. Congratulations!
When you’re done, look ahead. Sure, a year is an arbitrary designation–maybe you operate on some sort of fiscal year, or you’re still a fan of the Julian calendar, or your new year starts February 12th. But it’s a good time to reassess, because other writers are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck your local independent bookstore (who likely offer curbside pick-up).
Make a little list–not too many things or it just gets overwhelming–of your writing plans. Think about the classic “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.
- Specific like “I want to be published in Brevity” (and we hope you do) rather than “I want to be a published author” which is a bit wide-open.
- That one’s Measurable–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, or maybe you got a different venue for your essay and we lost out.
- Attainable is also key. I’m not aiming for the Nobel Prize quite yet, plus I think someone Swedish has to nominate me. Maybe start with “meet more Swedes.”
- And really, winning a Nobel isn’t especially Relevant to what I want to be writing.
- Timely can be a deadline, or a number or pattern of attempts (10 tries, quarterly submissions, etc), so the goal starts with an action you can take.
Here’s what I’m thinking about:
What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to finish a novel, because I care about writing YA, and I think it looks better to give writing advice when I’m walking the walk. You?
Do you need help to be this kind of writer? I need to locate a couple of beta readers who haven’t read the previous incarnations so they can come in fresh. What help do you need?
What big project do you want to finish? That book, and to host a writing retreat in Costa Rica or Italy, both delayed from last year. How are you going to do that? They’re both check-off-able tasks: chapter by chapter, email by email–“write a book” would be as nebulous and difficult as “lead a retreat.” One project is creative and the other’s business, but I’ll approach both with a defined process. And allow myself grace when elements I can’t control hinder my progress. What’s your big project?
What do you want to read? More “challenging” books and less comfort re-reads. How can you make that happen? Order Hilary Mantel’s latest and dive in! What can you not wait to read?
What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’d like to spend a little less phone-on-sofa time. You?
It’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in our brains. It’s hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what we can actually accomplish. Like tapas or sushi: order all at once, and you’re likely to have more food than anyone can finish. But grab the thing you love best first, enjoy it, and then order the next thing you have room for, and the next. One dish at a time. One step on a goal. And no, you do not have to order vegetables first. Choose the goal you love the most, not the obligation.
Got any questions you’re mulling over for 2021’s writing year? Ask us what you’re asking yourself. Tell us what you did–and what you’re going to do next.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. January 22nd, she’ll be leading the webinar This Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal-Setting and Project-Planning for Writers. It’s a steal at $25–sign up here!
December 28, 2020 § 8 Comments
The author Barry Lopez passed away on Christmas Day, and we will truly miss him. His sentences were beautiful, and he was as well: setting an example as an artist, a citizen, and a human being.
Thankfully, he left us with so much of his wisdom and heart, including this passage, on the subject of hope and why we make art:
“In conversations over the years with other writers and artists about what we’re actually supposed to be doing, I’ve been struck by how often, deep down, the talk becomes a quest for the same mysterious thing. Underneath the particular image in question, the particular short story or musical composition, we’re looking for a source of hope. When a conversation about each other’s work doesn’t pivot on professional jargon or drift toward the logistics of career management, when it’s instead deferential and accommodating, we’re sometimes able to locate a kind of Rosetta Stone, a key to living well with the vexing and intractable nature of human life. If any wisdom emerges in these conversations, it offers sudden clarification. It’s the Grail shimmer. You feel it, and you can’t wait to get to work.”
December 22, 2020 § 2 Comments
More than twenty years before Jennifer Worley takes us behind the scenes of the Lusty Lady club, in Neon Girls: A Stripper’s Education in Protest and Power, I was slinking across the stage of one of the many strip joints in San Francisco’s North Beach. ‘Sex work,’ a term later introduced by prostitute, performer and activist Carol Leigh, highlighted that our activities involved the same economic and labor considerations as any trade or profession. While the term wasn’t in use when I was a struggling dancer, by Worley’s time, it had become part of the vernacular. She and her cohort in 1990s San Francisco would make an imprint on efforts to recognize sex work as real work, through their landmark success at unionizing and eventually owning the Lusty Lady, and their ultimate takeover of the club is the framework for Neon Girls.
Worley’s evolution as a stripper from outsider to insider started while working toward a master’s degree in English literature, needing to increase her income and work fewer hours. A Lusty Lady advertisement promised $22 an hour—twice what her entry-level publishing job paid. (Sex work is still generally more profitable for women than other service sector employment.)
The Lusty Lady wasn’t a typical club with a raised stage and a solo performer—the kind of place where I’d danced. Rather, the Lusties were sealed behind glass—untouchable. Usually, four girls swayed, wiggled, and spun around poles in a 10 x 15 room with mirrored walls and ceiling offering an orgiastic illusion. The stage was designed so the ladies could manipulate what was seen. The group performance encouraged a sense of sisterhood.
All the Lusties picked stage names, but names did more than assure their privacy—they impacted and defined their personae. Worley became “Polly,” and after living for five years with “an unfortunate split-second impulse” that labeled her more schoolgirl than seductress, she re-emerged as Delinqua, reflecting Worley’s transformation through her experience as a Lusty. Most of the women, with their chosen stage names—Sizzlean, Decadence, Cinnamon—and their adopted personas, developed alter egos giving them newfound confidence in their mainstream lives.
After about a year at the club, Worley began tackling the administrative dynamics of the Lusty Lady. Performers were being prioritized for shift assignments by race, hair color, and breast size. An incident involving being filmed (forbidden but difficult to control) heightened Worley’s motivation. “I hated the idea that men I didn’t know or trust now had records of the work I did, that they could carry Polly, naked and unawares, from the safe refuge that birthed and nurtured her, into that other world where I had to live my life.”
Worley’s academic background is evident as she explains the Lusties’ place in the lineage of sex workers. We learn how sex-worker liberation may have started on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill—known more nowadays for the neighborhood’s feral parrots than for the Chilean women who settled there during the Gold Rush. They took in laundry by day and sold sex at night, probably establishing the city’s first red-lantern district.
A tradition of resistance among sex workers laid the foundation for the Lusties’ unionization campaign, initiated in Spring 1996. Said Worley, “This wasn’t just about some one-way windows…It was about confronting the systems that commodified women’s sexuality for the benefits of everyone else involved.” They picketed in front of the theatre, chanting “Two-four-six eight, don’t go here to masturbate,” with passing cars honking in support. Within a few weeks, their union contract was ratified, affirming their right to organize and advocate for themselves. Over time, the workers transformed the club into a cooperative.
At the Lusty on and off for over ten years, Worley describes how the “Bright passionate women…had drawn me out of my graduate student shell and into the Lusty fray…to get involved and make change. … I felt responsible for continuing the legacy of sex workers…” But, performing one day, suddenly the tears began falling, and she was enveloped by shame. It was over for her. On her last day, she returns to the club—the “tiny little pit”—where she’d “grown up.”
This kind of introspection highlights what’s missing for me in the narrative. More instances of self-reflection would give the reader a better understanding of Worley’s emotional process. How did she go from Polly to Delinqua to tears in front of a Private Pleasures booth? “It was confusing to feel this depth of shame so suddenly… But this was not the sudden belated eruption of some long-repressed shame…; rather, it was an accounting for the many ways I’d bracketed and sidelined my own aspirations for the sake of the collective.” That bracketing seems to have sidelined her from her feelings, although she acknowledges resentment for how male authority governs the world of commercial sex, their preferences determining who’s hot and who’s not.
Worley has invited the reader into a world unfamiliar to most, Stripping the strippers of their negative stereotypical identities, they’re revealed flesh and blood, thoughtful and intelligent, with the same life goals and challenges as anyone. While our experiences were separated by more than twenty years, Worley confronted as I had the feminist implications of working as a professional sex object. In sex work, the experience of personal power can be simultaneous with feeling exploited.
Worley endured and came into her own working as a Lusty. In contrast, for years I’d kept my own brief stint as a dancer a secret, until one day it became part of my life story. I try to imagine what it would’ve been like if I’d had the moxie and the self-confidence to make the stage my own. Worley gave me an intimate glimpse into that world.
Nancy Jainchill’s writing has focused on sex positivity, feminism and sexuality. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Entropy, the Albany Times Union, and Brevity among others. She is a psychologist living and working in upstate New York. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @nancyjainchill.
December 18, 2020 § 18 Comments
By Lisa Kusel
A woman in one of my Facebook writing groups recently solicited advice on how best to approach a “rockstar” level person for a blurb, given that she’s a “nobody.” I laughed when I read the post, remembering a time long ago…
…It’s 2005 and my second book/first novel is soon to be released and my editor is all askew with worry that I don’t have any blurbs for its back cover. She’d sent off 30 galleys to A-list writers, but none had yet to respond. I suspected not one of those 30 authors were going to put out.
Why? Mostly because I wasn’t part of the in-crowd. Much like what goes on in Hollywood, it all comes down to who you know, and I knew no one in the literosphere. (If you look at some of the “highly praised” novels on your bookshelf there’s a good chance you’ll see a lot of the same authors passing blurbs back and forth amongst themselves like massages in a college dorm.)
While attempting to secure my own valuations, my editor asked me to blurb a book by one of her authors. I said, “Of course,” since that was the polite thing to do. Ultimately, I found the book—a memoir about growing up on an Indian ashram—a little too self-absorbed. (This, from a writer who would go on to publish a self-absorbed memoir about living in a bamboo hut in Bali). As I needed all the good blurb karma I could round up I opined that the book was “wonderfully entertaining and wholly original.”
Once I realized that said blurb karma wasn’t going to kick in, I emailed A-list author Jennifer Weiner directly. Her (many bestselling) books had little in common with mine other than that they were both pigeon-holed as “chick-lit.” Her reply to my ask was curt, polite, and utterly forgettable. Interestingly, in an essay she wrote nine years later, she decries blurbs but goes on to say how sympathetic she is to blurb-seekers:
It’s hard out there for a new writer. It’s especially hard for new women writers who, statistics tell us, are less likely to get published or reviewed. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to help, why wouldn’t you? I believe in karma, in paying it forward, in using whatever influence I have for good.
Not having been in the path of Weiner’s forward-paying behavior, I began to look further afield. I read a news clip about the actress Emma Thompson who said she adored traveling to Zanzibar. Since my novel takes place almost entirely on the Tanzanian island, I felt it reasonable to ask a famous movie star to blurb a novel by an unknown writer.
As luck would have it, a writer friend of mine knew an agent who knew her agent who generously offered to send the book to her in London. Alas. She didn’t blurb it, but she did mail me a lovely handwritten note on personal stationery. She apologized that she couldn’t find the time to read my book as she was too “snowed under,” but she wished me all the very best.
By the time Emma’s (naturally we’re on a first-name basis) note arrived I’d received three good-enough blurbs: one from a local author whose reading I’d attended. The other two came from lesser-known writers enlisted by my editor. One called my book a “sexy triumph.” The other stated that my “ambitious debut novel brims with heart and heartache.” (My assumption is that they, too, were trying to garner their own blurb karma.)
Did sales of my novel suffer because I didn’t get any rockstar blurbs? Maybe. It also might have been because it’s not a very good novel (please don’t tell my agent I said that). It started out great but then the editor who bought it in the first place left the publishing house for the opportunity to edit Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The new editor eviscerated my plot, wanted more sex, and, well, that part of the story is best left for another time…
So, I will tell that woman in my Facebook writing group that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to getting attention from A-listers. I will point out that it’s not going to be easy to extract blurbs from famous people, but I will encourage her to give it a try. I will remind her that even somebodies were once nobodies and maybe, just maybe, one of them will remember that and actually pay it forward.
Lisa Kusel is the author of Rash, a Memoir, as well as the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the well-blurbed novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. Read more of her essays on her blog and follow her on Instagram.
December 17, 2020 § 12 Comments
It’s hard to judge the quality of our own work. Most of our friends are more supportive than critical—thank goodness! But in order to figure out if our own writing belongs in the publication venue we admire, we need to step back and take a long hard look. Since it’s hard to judge your own work, start by judging someone else’s.
What’s the last great thing you read in the place you want to be published? Ideally, you’re already reading books from that publishing imprint, or issues of that magazine, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow.
That wow is the first step towards judging our own writing—and improving it.
Go beyond the wow, and think analytically. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Being able to see those tools at work is a sign your own writing ability is getting closer to what you’re reading.
Check out those transitions.
Love that she told that whole story in just 700 words.
The way that structure looped around was so unexpected and satisfying.
OK, it’s simple, but it’s so fun!
I’d never have thought to put those two parts of the story next to each other, but it makes them both better.
It’s so well-told – not a wasted word.
Take a look at your own recent work. Are you using those same (or similar) tools in your writing? Which ones are popping up through instinct, and which do you actively employ? Think about the essays, stories, articles or chapters you’ve most enjoyed writing: are you covering similar dramatic ground to the already-published pieces? If not, is there a topic or experience you could investigate in your work?
When you can regularly identify writing tools and techniques, the next step is employing those techniques in your own work. Go back and revise, choosing a craft element you admire from the published piece and consciously employing it in your next draft. Another great way to practice and internalize writing techniques is by copying and changing: follow the sentence structure and format of a page or two from a writer you love. Change the nouns, verbs and descriptions to your own, but see what making sentences with their rhythm feels like. After spending time consciously self-editing, the tools will become habits, and even first drafts will begin to incorporate more skilled writing.
Wait—I don’t need this whole paragraph, the transition is implied.
Too many adverbs, I’m going to punch up the dialogue instead.
What if I told this non-chronologically?
I’m having so much fun writing something commercial!
Yes, this is where that description goes, and it shows what the hero is thinking.
OK, I can totally trim this down.
What if I did the next draft in first person?
Finally, a tough one—think about the way your work is received right now. Does anyone ask to read it? Not just when you ask for feedback, or when it’s your turn in the writing group, but do people not related to you read your work and approach you to ask for more? When you share a piece, do readers give a specific reason they liked it, or tell you the feelings they had when they read your work? Those are all good signs you’re writing at a publishable level. Ask some of those people what else they read, and go read those publications, too. How good is the writing? Would your work fit?
If you’ve been timid, or haven’t had a chance yet to get your work into a public forum, blogging, Medium, or writing-community sites like Wattpad and Sixfold can help you reach readers you don’t know personally.
Going through these steps is not a one-time thing. Every time your work improves, you’ll get better at analyzing others’ work, which in turn allows you to level up again. It’s a virtuous circle. Keep enjoying what you read and looking for the wow. When a writer impresses you, look for the tools they used. Practice using those tools in your own work. And start submitting to the places you love to read.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her forthcoming book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Join her and Ashleigh Renard Tuesday December 22nd for an Ask Us Anything episode of the Writers’ Bridge Platform Q&A (free, sign up here for Zoom link).
December 16, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Diana Wagman
“Person A, say hello.”
“Hello,” I said.
I was speaking into my cell phone and hoping my reception didn’t crap out, as it does sometimes at home. I had signed up to participate for an hour in an odd kind of pandemic theater. Two strangers call a phone number. A robotic voice answers and tells us a story, stopping intermittently to ask us unrelated questions.
“Person B, describe where you’re sitting.”
I found the whole exchange remarkable. I knew nothing about the other participant, not where she lived or what she did. By the end of our conversation, I knew she had a son, but not how old he was. I knew she was wearing a gray sweatshirt, but not her name. Any knowledge I had was the result of her answers to the robot’s very specific questions. She knew alternative, but the same number of odd facts about me. And yet, when we hung up—when the robot hung up on us so we couldn’t exchange anything personal—I felt sad, as if I’d lost a friend.
“Person A, what is the name of someone you love?”
Afterwards, I immediately emailed a woman I know, an actress and long time theater person, and asked if she had heard of this. I told her how moved I was and what a solace the hour had been in these lonely times. It meant so much more than watching a recording of a play on screen.
“It’s not theater,” she said. “Rehearsal. Development. But theater needs an audience.”
I didn’t respond then, but later that evening I decided that I disagreed. Does art need an audience to make it art? In this case, wasn’t I both actor—although I am definitely not an actor—and audience? I was following the story, listening to the robot’s instructions, and learning the few things I did about the other person on the phone. It was at least an audience of one. Maybe two, with the other person listening to my story as well as her own. Maybe three. Hard to tell about the robot.
Did it take more than just me to make it theater? Does art need an audience to make it art? And that made me wonder about a painting that is never seen by anyone except the painter. Is that art? Is a musical composition never heard by anyone except the composer still art? In my own very particular case, if I never publish this book I’ve worked so hard on and no one ever reads it, is it art? Is it less than a book? Am I less than a writer? Does no audience, no reader, no viewer, no listener mean my work is just rehearsal or development?
I tell my students the only difference between me being a writer and them being a writer is that someone has given me some recognition and labeled me a writer. That doesn’t make me a writer. Writing makes me a writer, just as they—my students—are writers if they write. Not if they publish, but if they write.
Painters paint. Musicians play. When art is successful, it makes connections between what we know and what we don’t. It reveals commonality and creates empathy or at least recognition of the other. It pushes the audience (or the reader or the viewer) to expand their thinking. This hour on the phone had done that for me. When my writing is working, it’s doing that for me, whether or not anyone else is reading.
“Person B, do you know how to train a dog?”
The story we heard interspersed between the questions was simple. We—my fellow participant, the robot, and I—were driving down an empty desert road. A few questions later the robot told us the car broke down. We were stranded. No sign of human life in any direction. A couple of questions and then we were told we decided to walk to the nearest gas station. The robot didn’t mention any danger, but as we returned again to the questions I worried that my fellow stranger/actor/audience member would not be able to keep up. For no reason, I imagined her frail and delicate. I was invested in her survival.
I had heard her voice and the answers to her questions. I knew the sound of her hesitating, taking time to think. I knew she had worried about her parents when she was a child, been concerned for them. Maybe that was why I was nervous about her. I didn’t know her. She could have been a bodybuilding firefighter trained in the martial arts and much stronger than I, but these questions, this interchange, and the inherent risk in the desert breakdown tale, made me want to care for her.
The thing I hope for most in my writing is that I make the reader care about my characters.
“Person A, repeat after me: Am I coming into focus?”
Of course most of us write wanting to be read. We act hoping to be watched. We compose wanting to be heard. We paint wanting our work to be seen. We do not create only for ourselves, to keep our work in the closet, but it wouldn’t make it less valid if we did. If we produce work we’re proud of and has accomplished what we set out to do and we never get an audience of thousands, or hundreds, or even more than one, we are still artists. It is still art and we have succeeded.
“If you saw me in a crowd, would you know me?”
“Yes.” Oh yes, I’m sure I would know her anywhere.
“Thank you for participating. Good bye.”
Diana Wagman is the author of six novels. Her second, Spontaneous, won the 2001 PEN West Award for Fiction. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Colorado Review, Electric Literature, and other literary journals, as well as The Los Angeles Times. The theater piece referenced here is written and produced by 600 Highwaymen .
December 15, 2020 § 16 Comments
Staring at your not-final manuscript? Perhaps you rushed out a first draft in one glorious NaNoWriMo month. Perhaps you’ve slowly pecked away for 10 years. Either way, it’s a rush to finally type “the end” at the conclusion of a draft—you did it! You got there!
But what happens next? Your initial inspiration shines on the page, but you know it’s not “done-done.” How, exactly, does it become the next draft? Start with spellcheck? Get someone else to read it? And how will you know you’ve done all the work you can?
First drafts often spring from the impulsive heart, the burning need to tell what happened. Second—or any subsequent drafts—thrive with work plans.
Depending on how you enjoy writing, and how your best work gets done, your work plan might be a list of tasks or a method of proceeding.
Methodical revisers often start on page one, fixing sentences and scenes from beginning to end. Or they might work chapter by chapter, addressing dramatic arc, voice, theme and structure in each. Addressing multiple issues at once can save time, but it can be hard to see the story forest for the line-editing trees.
I swear by a list. The work plan I use (and recommend to many authors) lets me focus on the whole book, keeping the story in my head while tinkering with scenes and sentences.
1) Outline the story using my dramatic structure of choice. For fiction or action-based memoir, often a traditional 5-act structure. For an essay collection, character-driven literary fiction, or reflective memoir, perhaps a spiral from theme to theme and topic to topic. Business, self-help or a craft/how-to (like my forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book), benefit from a ladder structure showing how each subsequent chapter or concept builds on the previous, and each exercise or reflection asks the reader to branch out at that level.
2) Assess the outline. Are scenes in the right order? Do momentum and knowledge build? Does tension stay tight and reader understanding increase? Is the narrative pace too slow, or the number of things to learn too fast? Revise, moving chunks of text as needed and writing in placeholders for “missing” scenes or material.
3) Fill in any placeholders. Are some moments underwritten because the author got tired that day, or a scene evoked tough emotions? Is research needed to fill in a memory or plot gap?
4) Look at conflict. Does each scene or chapter include conflict between what someone wants and what they can get? Is the conflict between characters, between memoirist-as-narrator and memoirist-as-past-self, between narrator and self, narrator and society, or between the reader and their current beliefs/habits? If every scene includes conflict, where does the reader rest or absorb information? Revise scene by scene, increasing, decreasing or refocusing conflict as needed.
5) Revise scenes to get in late and get out early. Rather than parking the car and walking down the hall and entering the office and sitting down and greeting the boss, open with “You’re fired,” or better yet, standing by the car with a box of desk stuff. Edit scenes to close at or immediately after the moment of impact, with only the reflection needed to convey emotion. Even in “slower” or voice-driven books, make sure the reader’s time is spent loving a character, learning new information, enjoying a beautiful/fascinating/terrifying scene or drawing a powerful conclusion. Edit out filler.
6) Revise most scenes to start and end with a strong action, image or emotional moment. Strong scene/chapter openings and closings create pace. In more leisurely books, that’s where the reader has a moment to add their own thoughts to what you’re about to show them, or slows down to absorb the impact of what they’ve read. In faster books, these moments pull the reader forward with your narrative.
7) Refine the narrative and character voices. For each character, read only their dialogue and narrative. Does it sound like them and not anyone else? If all the dialogue tags vanished, would it still be pretty clear who’s talking? For nonfiction, is author voice clearly and specifically in the narrative? For fiction, does the narrative have a clear point of view?
8) Print the whole manuscript and make additional edits and notes on paper. Use scissors and tape to move anything that still needs to be moved.
Next, my favorite editing technique of all:
9) Instead of editing the existing file, retype the entire manuscript, plus any new edits, into a new file.
When I suggest retyping, writers look at me like I’m asking them to dance naked through the mall with flowers and tambourines. But this technique is powerful. Rewriting gives flow. Your authorial voice can more fully develop, like that great party anecdote you tell. The more you retell the whole thing, the better your timing and delivery get. You may also feel physical resistance at lovingly crafted passages…that don’t belong in this book after all. Plus, we are always the person most interested in our work. If it’s too boring to retype it, it’s too boring for anybody else to read.
This may not be your best work plan, and that’s OK! It’s time-consuming, and if you’re in a hurry, you might prefer something like this One-Pass Revision from Holly Lisle, which covers basically the same steps but with terrifying/awesome speed. The above plan also doesn’t address theme, opening hook, character objective, and other elements you’ll want to revise. But it will get you started, and having a specific, written plan can sustain you through writing days that feel like “work.”
If you try it, let me know how it goes (or if you need a cheer!). Nudity and tambourines optional.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Need more direction on your next draft? Join Allison’s Wednesday webinar all about Second Drafts, including theme, voice, hook and much, much more. More info/sign up here! (recording available if you register but can’t make it live).
December 14, 2020 § 5 Comments
During my parents’ divorce, I lived with my grandmother, a gifted raconteur with impeccable timing and skillful intonation. Listening to her made me want to become a storyteller. Most of her tales were set during her childhood in the Bronx and involved the Yankees, her mother’s mysterious illness, or her family’s elaborate Italian dinners.
One day, she told me about a dollhouse she’d wanted for her sixth Christmas. At sixty-one, she could still recall the number of rooms and the color of the kitchen’s porcelain plates. With each detail, she transformed into the little girl who pleaded for her one and only Christmas wish.
But the only gifts under that year’s Christmas tree were underwear and socks.
After a long pause, she swallowed hard then patted my hand. “That day, I learned an important lesson. If you never want anything, you’ll never be disappointed.”
A lifetime of heartache solidified that lesson.
Her mother’s tragic death.
A shotgun wedding after an unplanned pregnancy.
An unhappy marriage.
A suicide attempt.
Mysterious health problems.
At ten, I absorbed her lesson.
It took several decades to unlearn it.
Since March, I’ve thought a lot about her story and how it’s hard to want anything when problems keep dropping upon us.
A global pandemic.
Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
More COVID cases.
And yet, even now, I have desires.
I want to finish the memoir about my brother’s suicide.
I want to send it to agents.
I want to believe this story will help someone.
When grief overpowers me during the revision process or I fear my memoir no longer matters, I turn to Brevity for inspiration.
While my teacup steams beside me, I read courageous posts about Chelsey Drysdale’s courage in the face of rejection, Amy Grier’s determination to finish her memoir, and Shiv Dutta’s late-life publishing success.
Brevity shows me that I’m part of a creative family whose wishes are sacred.
In November, I met with several members of this creative family who sounded as broken-hearted as my grandmother. Many talked of shrinking their dreams. I felt like doing this too.
During my master’s in counseling, my advisor once said, “We can’t change the past, but we can change the story we tell about it.” That’s what counselors help people do.
It’s also the gift of creative nonfiction.
As we entered the final month of this year, I wanted to do something that proved there’s more than one story we can tell about 2020.
I created my #Giveaway4Good Challenge to help writers connect with something greater than themselves. Each week’s challenge is designed to boost resilience and encourage literary citizenship. Knowing this work benefits my creative family gives me the strength to work on the hardest parts of my memoir.
My Week Three Challenge gives you an opportunity to support organizations like Brevity that encourage us to courageously turn our difficult experiences into art.
Here are the details for this week’s challenge:
- Support any literary organization with a monetary donation or social media share, and I’ll give you one ticket for this week’s drawing. I’m giving additional tickets for support to Hippocampus Literary Magazine, James River Writers, and Creative Nonfiction. For more details check out my website.
- Support Brevity by doing one of the following and I’ll give you two tickets for this week’s drawing:
- Make a ten-dollar donation to Brevity or send a copy of The Best of Brevity to a writer, teacher, or friend and I’ll give you four tickets for this week’s drawing.
The more you do, the more tickets you’ll earn.
This week’s prize is a set of author-signed books published in 2020 and a spot in Jane Friedman’s Query Master Class.
You’ll also be entered in my grand-prize drawing for a one-hour coaching session with me (includes a 10-page manuscript review) PLUS a spot in Jane Friedman’s course How to Write a Book Proposal.
To participate in this challenge, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include the name of the organization and your donation amount or a screenshot of your social media posts.
If loneliness, heartache or overwhelm make you question your dreams, brew a hot beverage, and scroll through Brevity. Let the words of your brilliant, courageous writing family remind you to that your stories are your gift to the world.
Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, and The Guardian, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about how, after her brother’s suicide, a chance meeting during a heavy metal tour ultimately saved her life. Follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen or Instagram @lisacooperellison.