January 11, 2018 § 13 Comments
Maybe you’ve got a dream residency. Or you’ve never been to an artist retreat, but it sounds like a great idea. There are residencies around the world at all prices, lengths, and amounts of coddling. Some feel like a new family, eating communal meals and hanging out at the swimming hole. Others are truly retreats, one writer in their own space with no-one to talk to (bliss!). I–and plenty of other writers–have self-made residencies, shacking up in hotels, religious centers, or remote cabins. One of my most productive “residencies” was four days in a small-town AirBnB after attending a writing workshop. Rather than rush back into my day-to-day, I could apply the revisions my teacher suggested, and write from ideas generated in class.
Even if you don’t have a place in mind, prepping for an imagined future residency is useful for your writing career. Updating your resume makes you ready for sudden opportunities. Devising an “artist statement” can help set writing intentions for the months to come. It’s worth it to:
Update Your CV. Make a writing-focused resume, emphasizing aspects of your other jobs that make you a perfect teacher/writer-in-residence/candidate for something cool, and a separate “publication list” where you list everything you have ever written that has gone public. Don’t list personal blog posts–but mention the blog and say what you write about. Save the big version for reference, then pare it to 2-5 pages of the most relevant experience and best publications. (Pro Tip: organize your published work by genre if your best credit is farther down the list by date.) Then joyfully slash it to a paragraph on your overall career development, a shortlist of writing-related jobs, and your 5-10 top publications. Some applications ask for one page, so agonize now instead of at 10PM before a midnight deadline.
Write an Artist Statement. It sounds intimidating, but an Artist Statement is basically, “This is the kind of work I do, because I want to have this effect on that community. I’ve already explored these subjects and topics, and now I’m pushing my boundaries in this medium/style/venue/genre.” Writing this down helps you remember why you’re writing, and what you want to achieve. Here’s a great guide to writing an Artist Statement. Make a 500-word version, one that fits on a page, and one that’s a paragraph. Now you’re ready to copy-paste that information into a grant application, or next year’s holiday card. (I guarantee none of your relatives will suggest you write teen vampire novels after that.)
Write a Cover Letter. Again, agonize now, not at the last minute. Ask a pal who’s gotten into a residency to share their cover letter and Mad-Libs that sucker until it’s your own. When the time comes to apply, fill in the relevant dates and information, and you’re ready to go.
Choose Your Best Pages. Put together a packet of 25 pages and one of 10 pages (the numbers commonly asked for). If you’re a novelist or memoirist, go for a complete scene or chapter. If you’re an essayist, lead with your strongest essay. Have a version with your name in the header of every page, and a version that can be read blind. At ElectricLit, author Sandra Beasley recommends:
Submit the strongest possible work sample for two-thirds of the allotted pages. If your strongest work is completely different from the work you’re setting out to do, make sure that other third represents relevant material.
Dream Up a Plan. What would you do with three weeks of someone else feeding you and no housework or papers to grade? How would you spend your time? What project deserves your focused energy? Sketch out 100-500 words apiece on two or three things you’d be thrilled to have space to work on.
By having these documents prepped, you can spend your valuable application time polishing and tweaking instead of choosing and worrying. You have time to have a friend proofread. To update your publications instead of making a list from scratch. When you find out about a great opportunity the day of the deadline, you have an hour of customization on your hands instead of 8 hours of drafting new material. And more importantly, you have a clear picture of where you are right now as a writer–and where you want to be.
What’s the Deal With Writing Residencies, a great interview with Sandra Beasley at Electric Lit, breaks down the residency process from application to departure.
On the Brevity blog, we discussed Glendaliz Camacho’s terrific post about reading applications as a residency juror, and how to write a great application.
The Res Artis database is a great place to check out residencies by date or location.
If you’re a woman or non-binary writer, feel free to friend me on Facebook and I’ll add you to a group that discusses artist residencies. For people of all genders, check out the Artist Residencies Info Share Facebook group.
January 9, 2018 § 25 Comments
In Taiwan, there are historic shophouses, cliffs crumbling into the Pacific Ocean, and a glorious day where gods are processed through the streets, heralded by firecrackers and bands.
There are also huge stationery stores. The first one I saw–9X9 Stationery Expert–I walked right into four aisles of pens. Just pens. Not erasers or pencils–those have their own aisles, thank you very much. Upstairs were rows of stickers, file folders, calendars, art supplies, and shelf after shelf of notebooks, lined and squared and blank and ready for absolutely brilliant and world-changing writing.
That’s my secret hope for every blank page I buy. But usually new notebooks end up on a shelf, because they’re “too nice to use” or I’m on a kick where I only write in composition books or hotel notepads or primary school tablets from Austria. I finally solved that quandary by buying the same notebook every time, in packs of three, so I can write on nice paper without feeling like I’m committing desecration.
Still, I wanted the cute notebook that said “Everything Is Going to Be OK” on the cover. Or the one with the old-fashioned folded pages, to be slit apart with a paper knife. Maybe the one lined vertically for kanji writing, with anime pandas on every page. Before my husband hauled me out of the store (after waiting patiently for almost an hour), I’d bought gifts for friends and paper clips shaped like the Eiffel Tower.
I got sucked into an artsy independent store in Kaohsiung. In Tainan, going alone at night to 101 Stationary Paradise felt like meeting a lover. On my birthday, my husband indulged me. We walked almost five miles to hit every stationery store in Hualien for the right set of rubber-stamp letters.
It’s the promise of the blank page–not only are we going to write something on a fresh, clean space free of previous failure, we’ll do it with the joy and abandon of an eight-year-old with a brand-new box of still-pointy crayons that haven’t yet been forcibly shared with siblings.
I’ve moved away from paper. I have a habit-tracker and a list app and a calendar and everything syncs with my phone. It’s too easy. Every idea gets put in a digital list and forgotten immediately. Perhaps twenty projects have been broken into steps and abandoned. I dutifully tick off exercise and birthdays and groceries. Meanwhile, my notebooks sit half-filled, pulled out for a workshop when I’m doing “real” writing.
But I wanted those Taiwanese notebooks and pens, and I didn’t want them sitting on a shelf. There had to be a plan. I found the Bullet Journal. Beautiful, hand-lettered calendars, habit trackers and moon charts sprawled across Instagram and Pinterest, hashtagged with the notebooks and art pens used to create them. It was way more than I could handle. (If you’re interested but easily overwhelmed, start with #minimalistbujo)
Instead, I resurrected an idea from Lynda Barry’s marvelous book Syllabus: use the same notebook for everything. Class notes and errand lists. Brainstorming and doodling. Real assignments and rough drafts and fresh ideas. Barry proposes that putting everything in one place sparks connections from proximity, even among unrelated items. And really, what more relationship do they need than all coming from the same head?
I stuck with the same notebook because I had a new one with me. I’m not sure I love the pens. I bought the wrong color stamp pad. I’m not a great visual designer, my pages bleed through and my handwriting is shitty. But so far it’s working. Everything in one book, the joy of playing with colored pencils and a cute sharpener and washi tape. If an idea is worth keeping, it’s worth writing down, flipping back to when I need something to write (like this blog post). If a job is worth doing, it’s worth copying to next week’s list–or let it go un-copied and undone, instead of popping up as an automatically scheduled “priority.”
When I first workshopped with Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore, he required all in-class writing to be done on paper, because (paraphrasing) the veins in the hand connect to the heart, and we can write more truly and deeply without the mediation of the keyboard. I do feel more connected to what I’m writing, even “cancel credit card,” and I’m finding things easier to remember (science!).
I probably won’t go completely analog, because typing is fast. But I’ve woken up five days in a row eager to get to the page, to color and write and make things. I’ve felt more focused, and the paper page doesn’t let me click through to Facebook.
New year, new notebook. Maybe it’s a gimmick. But for now, sign me up.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
December 21, 2017 § 33 Comments
How was 2017?
OK, a dumpster fire, yes, but how was your writing in 2017? Because now is a great time to consider what you got done. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and didn’t, but genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments.
Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?
Get a piece accepted? Submitted to places you want to be accepted?
Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?
Make it to a workshop or a class or a conference or a coffee date with another writer?
Read a book you really loved that showed you something about writing? Read a craft book and tried some exercises? Researched something new?
They all count. So bask in the feeling of accomplishment. 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. What kind of writing year do you want to have in 2018? 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 16th. But it’s a good time to mentally reassess, because other people are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck the bookstores.
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. The Measurement on that one’s easy–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, 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. 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, so the goal feels like something you can take action on.
Here’s what I’m thinking about:
What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to write more travel pieces for mass media, so I’m making a list of places to pitch, reading their stories for tone and structure. I also signed up for a big industry convention next month, to collect business cards for tourist boards, meet media reps, and check out travel trends. Do you need help to be this kind of writer? I’ve hired a coach to help refine my first few pitches and give feedback on story ideas.
What big project do you want to finish? Definitely another pass on my young adult novel, with a plan about how many chapters to do a week and when to start querying again. I’m organizing a writing retreat in India, and need to finish budgeting and start marketing. 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.
What do you want to read? More paper books and less news on my phone. How can you make that happen? Maybe turn on parental blocking on the websites that are my “I’m momentarily bored” crutches.
What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’m restructuring my freelance editing to do only one full manuscript at a time, with gaps between for my own work.
I realize that all sounds very organized. But it’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in my brain. It’s very hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what I can actually accomplish. In a way, it’s 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 2018’s writing year? The comments are wide open. 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. Happy goal-setting and see you in 2018!
December 19, 2017 § 11 Comments
The sticky joys of packing the kids into car seats. The triumph of cramming your daily life into a carry-on, victory dance cut short by a full bottle of contact lens solution. The stoicism of sleeping on the lumpy foldout sofa.
There’s nothing so delightful as travel at the holidays.
Fortunately for writers, it turns out travel broadens the mind regardless of destination. It’s not where you go, or even for how long–the process of moving to and within a new location is stimulating, even if it’s Aunt Hildy’s instead of Buenos Aires. As Jonah Lehrer writes in the Guardian,
…problems that feel “close” – and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional – get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful – it allows us to focus on the facts at hand – it also inhibits our imagination.
Travel breaks patterns. Motion jogs loose ideas from the bottom of the brain. Even the idea of distant places makes us more creative–when a group of study participants were told the puzzles they were trying to solve came from California, they came up with more and more varied solutions than another group told the puzzles came from the office down the hall.
I’m lucky enough to travel a lot. In fact, this is the first year since 2003 I’ve spent more time at home than I have on the road, thanks to retiring from a travel-heavy job. Now I’m away only(!?!) about three months a year. Sometimes it’s super glam–I’m headed for Taiwan in a few days for hiking and hot springs, to skip Christmas and ring in the New Year. Sometimes it’s a little more prosaic, spending time with a dear friend in Shreveport, or teaching at a conference in Bowling Green, Ohio. But every time, it’s new.
I did a weird thing in Ohio last month. I’ve been slowly clearing out belongings from my former home in Michigan. It’s hard–there’s a lot of sentimental items, things I associate with my former much-loved career and my first (also much-loved) marriage. When I open up a box in the basement, I can get through about half before I start crying and decide today isn’t the day for this. But this time I packed four boxes into the car and took them with me to the conference. After class, I went back to the Best Western, put on the TV, and worked through the boxes.
It. Was. Crazy.
Clothes I remembered adoring looked faded and ill-used. Books I’d been meaning to read were unappealing. Knickknacks I once treasured? Clearly junk. I didn’t even have to ask my standard “keep or toss” question (would I buy this today for a quarter at Goodwill?), I just chucked item after item into the “donate” pile. Outside the house full of memories and guilt and loss, it was easy to see the items as they were–stuff I used to enjoy and don’t need any more. I went home with one small bag, and the Bowling Green Salvation Army got the rest.
Relocation works for writing, too. There’s a reason we go to coffee shops or co-working spaces or long for an office of our own. Place dictates function, and the function of home is to be in the feelings we’re having, connect to the people and animals present in reassuring and predictable ways. Home is not an analytical space. But travel, Lehrer writes, raises constant questions:
The same details that make foreign travel so confusing – Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me? – turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we’re less insular. We’re reminded of all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything; we’re surprised by the constant stream of surprises.
Are you going anywhere over the holidays? Use at least some of it as a way to think new thoughts. Lock the kids in a room with an Xbox and go for a long walk. If you’re at home, make a familiar space foreign. Leave your phone in another room and watch the interactions of the people around you at parties. Write, or read, or dream in a new coffeeshop. Eat a new food. Get on public transit and transfer randomly until you don’t know where you are–then find your way back home without opening GoogleMaps. Start a conversation with that person who looks tedious or emotionally needy and find out what makes them tick. Make some notes. And write about the experience, or during the journey, or inspired by it when you get home.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Sign up to follow her travels with the bimonthly I Do Words adventure postcard.
December 14, 2017 § 8 Comments
Happy Third Day of Hanukkah! The season’s closing in–“Festive Winter Holiday” time, as the department stores around Dubai call it–and you may be wondering what to get the writers in your life. Or someone you love has asked that horrifying question, “What do you want for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Diwali*/Yule?”
…An agent, book auction and five-figure deal?
…Jesus to show up and explain pointedly, he really meant the part about taking care of the poor and the sick?
…A time machine to peek at 2020 and see if building a survival shelter in the present is a smart idea?
Sadly, none of these items are (currently) available for purchase. But there are plenty of other gifts for the writer in your life, and for you as the writer in someone else’s life.
Classic elegance: Buy their book, preferably from your local indie bookstore, but here at Brevity we also understand the desire to never leave the house again. Fortunately, Powell’s also ships. Double points: buy two and give one as a present to someone else, or leave it in a Little Free Library. Already own it? Review their book online!
Stocking-stuffer: See what books you’ve bought in the past six months but haven’t reviewed yet. Spread some goodwill around by writing some quick thoughts and clicking four or five stars. Especially if the writer is at less than 50 reviews: crossing that threshold really helps their visibility online. Copy-paste Amazon reviews to Goodreads, because every little bit helps.
Fellowship: Take a like-minded friend to a reading at your nearest bookstore, no matter who the writer is and whether or not you’ve ever heard of them. If it sucks, you’ll have text-LOLs for days. If it’s great, you’ve made a discovery. Either way, buy a copy of the book and know that it’s balm to a writer’s soul when strangers come to their reading.
Peace of mind: There is no vision more horrifying than the Blue Screen of Death. Why not gift your favorite writer a large-capacity hard drive or a subscription to a cloud backup service? When the ruin of the laptop lies before us, the sole comfort is knowing your manuscript’s safe.
Creative time: Offer to watch the babies for two hours, once a week, for a few weeks, so the writing parent can get some words down. If you’re lucky, she’ll schedule for naptime. Otherwise, enjoy looking at what the kids see, or finding out what they’re interested in. If you write YA, middle-grade or picture books, this is research–the gift that keeps on giving!
Creative tools: Have they been considering Scrivener? Final Draft? A creativity or organizing app? If you’re not sure exactly which one, there’s always an iTunes gift card, with a personal note saying you thought they liked X, but this is flexible just in case. For special bonus points, find out EXACTLY what kind of notebook they use, and stock them up on a few. (I love these red Moleskines–nice enough to feel special, not so fancy that they’re “too good to use.”) Likewise, do you know EXACTLY what kind of pen they like? Remember, a $935 pen is useless to someone whose words flow from a 17-cent Bic…and leaves them around everywhere.
Literary Citizenship: Sponsor your friend–or make a donation for scholarships–to a writing conference. Gift subscriptions of your favorite literary journals, or ones you know they’d like to be published in. We’re all supposed to be reading where we want to submit, and subscriptions aren’t cheap. Help their road to publication by getting them in the habit of reading in their venue. And Brevity is always happy to accept a donation in honor of a friend.
For yourself: If you don’t have an Amazon list, consider making one. We all try to be good writer buddies by reading for others when we can, and most of the time it’s a trade or a deposit in the favor bank against future need. But every so often, we end up doing professional-level or time-consuming work for someone we’re not comfortable billing. It’s easy to say, “I’m happy to help out, and will you get me something off my Amazon list?” They can choose whether to get you a great new book, a great used book, or that Belgian linen duvet set.
Remember, if you do some holiday shopping on Amazon, starting at Smile helps Brevity with a small percentage of your purchase at no extra cost.
And if you’re stuck awkwardly trying to tell people your desires, or wedged between “Oh, no, you don’t have to get me anything” and the uncomfortable knowledge that yes, you do need to get them something? Just send a link to this post. Hopefully, they’ll get the hint.
*Yes, I know Diwali was in October but it’s never to early to stock up on tea lights and gold jewelry.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.
December 12, 2017 § 21 Comments
On the twelfth day of Christmas, my loved ones gave to me:
Twelve children quarreling
Eleven guests arriving
Ten addiction triggers
Nine Secret Santas
Eight dinners cooling
Seven picky eaters
Six spouses slacking
Five traaaaaa-ffic jaaaaaaams!
Four messy rooms
Three loud screens
Two touchy in-laws
And an obligation Christmas party.
I am somewhat notoriously not a holiday person. I love my family, I’m grateful there aren’t that many of them, and I live in a country where December is a festive shopping season. I’ve managed to be outside the United States for the past ten Christmases, and this one I’ll be in Taiwan.
Not everyone is that lucky. My writer buddy shows up distraught–she’s flying back to Ohio, and the in-laws who aren’t speaking to anyone else are refusing to attend the family gathering and insisting my buddy’s family come see them in Nebraska. “How come we’re your lowest priority?!”
My acquaintance is in the middle of a divorce-based argument affecting how many and what kind of presents the children can have. “You’re not spending my money on that!”
An artistic director I admire is fighting her board of directors over employee schedules while mounting a 50-child production of A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim has managed to lose three pairs of crutches in three weeks. “They’re just going to have to do overtime.”
I suspect, Gentle Reader, you have similar items on your holiday list. In-laws. Neighbors you’d decided not to gift who show up with gifts. Debating how much to tip the super who was gone the week the boiler failed. Family from the other end of the political/moral spectrum. Tight budgets. Writer-friends who didn’t get Cat Person.
But your holiday experience is up to you. You don’t “have to” do anything. You may not like the consequences of not doing it, but it’s still a choice.
So give yourself the gift of time. Say no to more things than usual. Make a list right now of the things you expect/are expected to do this season, and choose your favorites. Ask your family what traditions they actually value and what’s rote. Don’t wait to be asked to the cookie party that takes five hours of prep and results in a carload of baked goods–go ahead and block that time out for something you want to do.
All that passive voice you’ve carefully rooted out of your writing? Employ it now.
What a shame our schedule filled up so much–let’s do something in January.
Our budget is gone–it just devastates me we won’t be able to make it.
Goodness, it sounds like that situation really bothers you–I hope it gets sorted out.
Let people be responsible for their own feelings. There’s a special holiday magic in “I agree, it’s just awful how things turned out. Oh gosh, the oven! I love you, goodbye!”
If you are an inveterate truth-teller, go preheat your oven to 350° and keep it going until December 26th. That way it’s ready when a phone call needs interrupting. (Brevity does not advise leaving your oven unattended. Please use all home appliances in accordance with manufacturer’s directions.)
Are you a fixer? Decide in advance where to spend your energy instead of having “problem-solver” thrust upon you. Pick one event or relationship you care about having in good working order–the dinner, the mother-in-law, the kids’ presents–and let everything else be someone else’s problem. It’s not even your job to assign who takes it on. It’s OK to say, “That’s not something I love doing. If you’d like to plan it, let me know when and where to show up and I’ll see you then.”
Refuse to engage with drama. Carry your notebook. When snippy Aunt Betty has something nasty to say, whip out your pen and ask her to repeat that, please, it’s perfect for a character in your book. Ask her to slow down when needed. Wait, do you want a hyphen in “streetwalker” or is it all one word? Is there a better adjective for Cousin Sally’s dress? What about “sleazy”–how do you feel about “sleazy”? I think that would tighten up the sentence. Avidly transcribe until she shuts up.
Finally, plan your escape. Even if you’re “on vacation,” it’s OK to go to the coffee shop for an hour and visit with your work. At home, leave a good book stashed under the bathroom sink, in the garage or basement or on the back porch. When a fight breaks out at the table, mutter “Oh dear, something must have disagreed with me.” That’ll give you about 25 minutes before anyone comes looking.
And if all else fails? Hit me up. I know a great noodle shop in Taipei.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. If you want to hear about Taiwan, please do sign up for her bimonthly adventure news.
December 5, 2017 § 26 Comments
Flash memoir is much more difficult than “only 750 words” suggests. As readers, we see finished pieces. Work that’s had a writing buddy or teacher or group say, “I don’t understand that bit,” or “There’s a problem there. Fix it.” But as writers, we’re wading through the murky middle, trying to believe in the Santa Claus of “All the professional writers you love write terrible first drafts! So terrible they will never show you!”
Without seeing, it’s hard to believe.
That’s where reading for a literary magazine (if we can) or reading fellow writers’ work in a group or class serves us. We get to see the pages that need another draft. As a freelance editor, I see similarities in short nonfiction-in-progress. Often, pieces don’t resolve, or don’t have the key story moments of beginning, middle and end. Sometimes the narrator tells what they experienced instead of making the reader feel what they felt. But the most common challenge in flash essays is the very last line.
About half the essays I see could cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper, tighter, cleaner “button” to make even a short piece feel satisfyingly finished.
Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps as writers we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we’re so used to slogging forward it’s hard to stop that inertia at word 739. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have felt a need to work on that element of our craft.
This example is mine, for the purpose of this post—but I’m copying the structure of the issues I see most often.
[Imagine this finishes an essay about a couple visiting India, trying to get on a blocked-off beach to watch the sunset. They’ve irritated each other throughout the story in small ways; he wants to protect/insulate her, she wants to be a little dangerous/culturally insensitive.]
The policeman tried to stop us, but I’d yammered at him in English I knew he didn’t understand and ducked under the plastic tape. “He won’t shoot us, we’re tourists,” I said, and Mark ducked under, too, his face twisting into sorry at the cop and exasperated with me. We sat on piled broken concrete on the dirty beach while the sun vanished behind an oil tanker.
How can we wrap this sucker up, in a way that says something emotionally meaningful happened here, and it was a big enough deal that we bothered to write about it?
Some things to avoid:
- Don’t summarize.
The rest of our trip had been terrible, too—if only I could have made this evening work, maybe I could have made our marriage work.
That’s when I knew I had to leave him if I was ever going to enjoy my life.
- Don’t explain.
I hated that he wasn’t ready for the adventure I wanted my life to be.
Even in India, we were destined to clash, our different backgrounds never letting us truly understand each other.
- Don’t justify.
As the sun set, I realized I couldn’t stay with him—I needed a partner who didn’t judge me.
If he didn’t want to travel wild, he shouldn’t have gone with me, and I wasn’t taking him any further.
- Don’t excuse.
I wish I’d been nicer, but I was twenty, still unaware of privilege easing my way, unappreciative of what Mark meant by “relax honey, just relax.”
Thank goodness I outgrew that stage, even if it did take until our 40th wedding anniversary.
Summarizing and explaining are subconscious manifestations of our fear of not writing well enough. They tell the reader, I’d better spell it out for you in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.
Instead, use the last line to either gently enfold the reader in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. You could:
- Take one step further than the reader thought you’d go. Go to a higher/deeper emotional level.
I wished one of us would fill our pockets with ragged cement shards and step into the waves.
[NB one line too many is a challenge for every single writer no matter what level, because I originally added It would be easier than breaking up, then realized that was one too many.]
- Twist. Show us the opposite of everything the narrator has felt or done so far.
I wanted the cop to say no, I wanted Mark to say no, I wanted someone—anyone—to stop me, send me home, tell me where that was.
[I don’t love the “that” in the last line, so I’d wrestle more with that in a real essay.]
- Admit guilt/fault/complicity.
“See, it’s fine,” I said, and we both knew it wasn’t—it wouldn’t ever be.
Mark’s shadow slumped on the sand, and I missed the man I’d ruined.
I reached for Mark’s hand, and we squeezed hard, each hoping we were doing something right.
Sure, there are other ways to end a flash piece strong (feel free to share examples in the comments!) But these are some techniques to get started. Once the emotion is on the page, sharpen your pencil and ask of your last line, what purpose do you serve? Let the sentence tell you if it belongs.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She just returned from scouting locations in India for a May 2018 writing workshop, hence this example.
November 28, 2017 § 10 Comments
We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.
“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”
Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”
We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.
Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.
Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.
These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.
For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:
This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class. I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.
For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).
I wrote this during my missionary work in China.
I’m a professional knitting teacher.
Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.
Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.
Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.
November 21, 2017 § 26 Comments
Have we got an offer for you!
Would you like to improve your writing craft today? By, say, 10%?
This doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but after editing essays and books and posts for the Brevity blog, for experienced writers and new writers and everyone in between, I’ve noticed a lot of repetition.
Not from book to book, although I see that. Not even from paragraph to paragraph, although I see that too.
Within the same sentence.
Sometimes it’s telling as well as showing:
He looked like an old man with his grey hair and gnarled hands.
Tell it once:
His hands were gnarled.
Better yet, show it in an action:
He ran a gnarled hand through his grey hair.
He picked at the tablecloth with a gnarled hand.
Sometimes it’s showing the same thing multiple times:
Jane patted my shoulder, gently massaging my arm to calm me down as she said, “Shhh, there, there.”
Show it once:
Jane rubbed my shoulder. “Shh, there, there.”
(Using an action as a dialogue tag is a great way to avoid repeating information.)
Sometimes it’s a festive riot of showing, telling, and over-explaining:
I picked up my phone and texted my boyfriend:
Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts
Although the only thing I spelled correctly was his name, when I sent him the text I thought it was very clear.
Pare it down:
I texted my boyfriend:
Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts
I thought it was very clear.
Texting implies the phone is in the narrator’s hand. There’s comedy in the juxtaposition of the garbled text and “I thought it was very clear.”
As writers, we worry we’re not good enough to get our point across in fewer words. That our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense?
But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Putting together clues to understand behavior, noticing dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guessing a character’s thoughts from their gestures—all these moments of detective work engage the reader more fully in the story. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—let them meet you on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.
This also applies to “filtering”:
I looked at James as he stomped over.
I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.
I heard him shout my name.
“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”
James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”
Removing the filtering lets the reader imagine themselves in the narrator’s shoes. It’s subtle, but it puts the reader a tiny bit more in the emotion of the scene. It lets them feel for us, instead of telling them what we felt.
If you’re having a wildly creative day, by all means go generate new material. But if you’re having a day where you should do some writing…and you’ll feel better if you do…but it’s all kind of looking like a slog—start slogging. Pick some pages and use the Find tool to spot “looked” “felt” “heard” “thought” and variations on those verbs. Ask of each one, “Do I really need you here?” Scan your sentences for repetitions and over-explaining. Ask in each place, “Can I make the reader work a little harder?”
It’s not our job to make everything make sense. Our job is to lay out enticing clues and let the reader solve the puzzle with us. To immerse them in our world–but learning, feeling, and making their own sense.
Photo credit: Cinecom Int’/Island Alive/REX/Shutterstock (5871592c)
November 16, 2017 § 4 Comments
When you’re wandering the aisles of the local megastore, already tired of Christmas carols you’ve been hearing since Halloween…it’s time to pop in those earbuds and enjoy the latest Brevity Podcast.
Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Episode #7 features an interview with Kristen Arnett, author of Felt In The Jaw, on debut authorship, the value of literary social media, and how she got her beloved agent. We also continue our mini-series on conferences with on-the-spot chats from speakers and participants at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking all things submissions with JoBeth McDaniels, Geeta Kothari, Erika Dreifus, Irene Landsman and a few more Hippocampers.
Show Notes: Episode #7 People and Books
Find out more about recording your own work
Submit your One-Minute Memoir to Brevity
Lisa Ko’s The Leavers
Terry Heyman’s The Kushner Family Passover Haggadah in McSweeney’s and A Letter to the Woman In Whose Body I’ve Lived For 38 Years, From Her Period at The Higgs Weldon
Rebecca Fish Ewan’s By the Forces of Gravity
Memoirists Anonymous: Turning Trauma Into Narrative was led by Laurie Jean Cannady
I Remember: Unlocking Memories to Lay the Foundation of Your Memoir was led by Jamie Brickhouse
Additional music, Later Fruits, thanks to Axletree via freemusicarchive.org