January 29, 2019 § 8 Comments
My friend Erin Clark is Instagram-savvy, writes great blogs, and illustrates them with amazing photographs, most often of herself. I’m always astonished at just how terrific she looks—the photos are interestingly composed, she’s usually wearing something sexy or adventurous or high fashion, and her face and body look great. I figured it was due to great shopping/scavenging skills and nature’s gift of fabulous cheekbones.
When Erin visited me in Dubai, my husband and I took her to dinner at a restaurant in the Marina, a waterfront area with wide sidewalks and beautiful city lights. Erin wanted a photo, so we walked and wheeled along until we found a good background. My husband offered to take the shot. “Thanks but I’m good,” Erin said. I thought she’d get a couple of selfies, maybe a couple more of the two of us. Instead, she took more than fifty shots, posing like a model, tossing her hair, angling her face. A woman walked by and asked about Erin’s Instagram—clearly, there was Instagram involved—and they swapped names and posed together.
Back at my house, Erin sorted through nearly a hundred pictures, edited and filtered the best few, and posted one photo to her feed. And I realized, that’s why she looks great in every photo. She could pick the one with the best combination of light, background, facial expression, hair and body, because she had a lot to pick from. Smile not great in that one? Toss it. Hair’s good but eyes are closed? Delete.
I see a lot of author photos, in conference programs and on book jackets and here on the Brevity blog. Many of them aren’t doing justice to the writer’s personality, looks, or writing. Am I judging what you look like? In life, I try not to. But the author photo is part of the whole package. A good headshot helps writers sell their work the same way 1-inch margins and 12-point Times New Roman do. It’s one more way to look professional.
Headshots used to be a hassle. You had to book a photographer (not the JCPenney photo studio), do the shoot, wait for contact sheets, wait for prints, duplicate the photos expensively and mail them in an envelope.
Now, anyone can have a good headshot for basically free. Some tips:
- Use the best phone camera in your vicinity. Borrow the latest model if you can. (But your phone is probably good enough.)
- Pick a background with texture but not distraction. Brick walls, abstract wallpaper, tree trunks. There’s a reason a bookshelf is an author-background cliché.
- Wear solid-colored clothes that contrast with your skin. The old adage about don’t wear white on camera applies mostly to white people. If you have darker skin, pick a color that contrasts rather than blending in. Black tops are usually not great for anyone, so if you love dark clothes go for a jewel tone or another deep, rich color.
- Natural light. Stand near a window. If you’re outside, go for soft morning or evening light. Try a few where your head blocks the sun and you get a beautiful hair-halo.
- Make sure the phone camera is in focus. Seriously, touch the screen and let it do that thing where it sharpens on you.
- Take. 100. Photos. Smile and frown. Laugh and look serious. Take your glasses on and off. Move your hands. Do that fun thing where you turn away from the camera and then turn back fast so your hair flies around. Get silly. Having fun between shots makes a more natural photo, even with a serious expression. You’re not paying for film, and the more shots you take the more you’re likely to feel good about one of them. Generally, you should have 1-2 great photos for every 40-50 frames. (That ratio holds true for professional models and photographers, too!)
- When choosing the photos you like, ask friends for input. Often, others see the photo as a whole when we’re focused on an imperfection no-one else is looking for.
- If something’s weird in your background, or there’s one hair across your face in an otherwise perfect shot, use an app like Touch Retouch. (It’ll also remove telephone wires and no-swimming signs from your vacation photos.) Backgrounds can be fixed with a faux-depth-mode app like Portrait.
- When you save your photos, do so in high, medium and low resolution. You’ll need that 72kb file for Twitter, but a blog or journal needs one around 1.5mb, and a printed program or poster will turn out better with a TIFF or JPG of 5mb or more.
- Don’t put photos you don’t like into the world. I’ve heard authors complain, “Why’d they pick that awful photo of me?” (1, it was on your website so they assumed you liked it, and/or 2, you didn’t provide a photo so they googled and picked the first decent shot they found.) Even “this one or that one?” posts on FB should be about fine distinctions between a few great shots.
It’s OK to hate being in photos. But sharing your work with the world means sharing part of yourself—so make your author photo something you’re happy to share, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
January 1, 2019 § 58 Comments
It’s midnight in New York but I’m already twelve hours into 2019, because I’m in India. Last night I ate Chinese food and passed the leftovers through a taxi window, saying to the beggar, “It’s non-veg, OK?” Last night my taxi driver pulled over by the side of the road so he could pee against a wall. Last night I was already in bed and mostly asleep by midnight, waking only to type a little bit on a book-in-progress, because my personal superstition is that whatever I’m doing on New Year’s, that’s what my year will be like.
Last week I had almost no WiFi, power or heat, and crashed my computer moments before getting on a plane to a part of north India with no Apple Store. Mostly, it was exhilarating, and good to be off social media. It was also a pain in the ass, making it difficult to return editing projects or even work on them. In one of the few moments of cell reception, I instinctively checked my email.
Of course there was a rejection, a painful one. I’d tied a lot of hope into that submission, and the rejection was kind and thoughtful and had a bit of feedback. But for the first time I had the feeling I’ve heard other writers describe but hadn’t personally felt: I wasn’t a writer any more. This was it. I didn’t want to write anything again, ever. Sure, I’d probably edit some people’s work for money, but writing wasn’t for me, it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t a world I belonged in. I was wasting my time. Part of my brain was gently reminding me, You tell writers all the time that one rejection doesn’t mean anything, it only means your work wasn’t the right fit for that person at that time. But I cried myself to sleep as quietly as possible so I wouldn’t wake my husband, and I’m crying as I write this now, because it still sucks.
That’s the missing piece for most of us as writers. We believe that somehow, somewhere, there’s a place for us where writing doesn’t suck. Where we’re happy with our quality of work, we’re getting published enough in the places we want that rejection still stings a little but doesn’t debilitate us. Where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when the tunnel’s long.
That’s writing’s nasty little secret. That’s the horrible underbelly of great art, the Achilles’ heel of incredible physical prowess, the flip side of being good at anything.
Being good doesn’t lift you out of failure.
In fact, the better you get, the more awful failure feels, because you can’t let it go with “Oh, I wasn’t ready,” or “Yeah, that magazine is just really hard to get into.” You start to feel like you’ve paid your dues, you’ve put your time in, and when is success going to show up please, because it’s getting late?
Olympic gymnasts still break bones. Olympic hopefuls don’t get on the team because someone they beat in practice ran faster than them today. Movie stars don’t get cast because the producers aren’t sure how they’ll do in the Asian market. Writers don’t get published because their book doesn’t land on the right person’s desk at the right time. Or because they aren’t ready. Or because they suck.
All of those situations feel the same on the other end. They all feel like “I suck,” and “I suck” is a hard feeling to climb out of.
As writers, we are told over and over again, it’s hard work. Just keep doing it. We try our hardest to believe that, while still hoping it’s not true. While hoping the feeling of writing something wonderful, something we’re really proud of, will carry us through rejection and writer’s block and ennui, and sometimes it does.
The day after the Olympic trials, the gymnast who failed has two choices: Quit, or go back to the gym. It sucks to go back to push-ups and flip drills and conditioning when you know your friends are training for the big time. But it’s easier to condition than to create new choreography from the depths of heartbreak. It’s easier to embrace the routine.
Right now, what I’d really like to do is get on a plane and fly across time zones until I’m back when the rejection hadn’t happened yet. What I’d like to do is quit.
What I’m actually doing is writing a blog post in a hotel lobby, after working a little on a novel and a lot on a writing craft book. Trying to practice what I preach about showing up when it’s not fun. Putting together my writing goals for 2019: Finish another novel, finish the craft book, write another play. Say yes to enough editing to make money. Say no to enough editing to have time to write. Show up for my fellow literary citizens. Show up for Brevity readers. Show up for the writers whose work is going well and for the writers who feel like they suck. Show up to the page. Show up, show up, show up.
See you there.
According to my superstition, my 2019 will have low-key charity, unexpected public urination, and writing whether I suck or not, because I’m committed to the routine.
What will your writing year bring?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and truly sorry for being such a downer today. Why not leave your 2019 writing goals in the comments, and we’ll check back in six months?
November 13, 2018 § 18 Comments
Sir, you don’t have to tell us the whole story. It’s enough to say “novel” or “memoir” or “blog post” and how many words or what goal you’re—
Fiction or nonfiction? Well, what’s your book about? There’s computers? And you’re creating a character like you… That’s fiction. No, it doesn’t matter if it’s set in the real world, as soon as you start making stuff up, it’s fiction. I mean, unless you’re writing memoir and being honest about fuzzy memories. But I’ve never seen a bookstore shelf labeled “Fiction but Also Nonfiction.”
Sure, I can give you a couple tips. Let’s just get everyone else started and—
Yes, planning a story is hard. You might find this website useful, it breaks down a traditional three-act structure, using The Hunger Games.
Oh, you’re an engineer so you think differently. You don’t understand the “theory” of writing. Well, I wouldn’t really call this a “theory,” it’s more that certain dramatic structures show up in most stories, based on human archetypes. So if you’re writing nonfiction, you might look for events that tie into a traditional dramatic structure, and if you’re writing a novel, you get to make those events up, and the structure is a guide and can help with ideas.
Well I guess I could explain it differently—what’s that?
You want to write a bestseller.
You need to know how to write a bestseller because if you’re going to put your time in, you want it to be worthwhile.
Hang on while I take a couple of very deep breaths with my eyes closed.
You’re still here?
No, following this structure won’t guarantee you a bestseller. It’s a tool. Like when you write code, you can’t guarantee the end-users will love the product, but you can use your knowledge of how users have interacted with previous apps to build the next one.
There’s no magic button. If there was a formula for bestsellers, publishers would only accept books that would be big hits and writers would write them every time.
Oh goodness, that coffee just went right in your lap! I hope I haven’t boiled anything. Just keep writing, everyone!
Yes, that management book was a bestseller, and he did write it quickly. Did you know he’s a public speaker who does events for thousands of people, and has been writing a very popular blog for years? Some authors have what we call a “platform,” but that’s only for nonfiction. Well, and Fifty Shades of Grey. That had a huge internet following that grew over several years. But that book hit a very specific niche. No, E. L. James didn’t think “I’m going to write a bestseller.” She wrote what she loved.
Oops, was that your ankle bone? Sorry, just a reflex.
Yes, I’m sure you could choose to love something that would be popular, but there’s no guarantee you’d pick the right thing. Books you see on shelves were started at least two years ago. It takes a long time to finish a book, get an agent, and get a publisher.
Sure, you can publish it yourself, but marketing and building platform is a full-time job.
Good work moving your hand, sir, you’re fast! Just keep writing, everyone, while I pry this fork out of the table.
We’re here because we love to write. Some hope to sell our books, some of us write for our own pleasure. I’m sure we’d all love to write a bestseller, but that’s not why we’re writing. I mean, fame and money are great goals, but writing a book is probably one of the hardest ways to get there. By the time you count up all the hours, it’s not even that much money.
Yes, a “How to Write a Bestseller” workshop would be very popular. I’m sure I could charge lots of money for it. But I’d rather spend that time writing, and teaching something a little more realistic. Maybe “How to Write What You Love and Share It.”
I guess that wouldn’t be very exciting for someone who wants to write a bestseller. You want a workshop with a breakdown of a specific bestselling book’s dramatic structure. That would help you. Something exactly like that website I recommended 45 minutes ago.
OK everyone, I’ll just pick up my table and sweep up the broken glass, and let’s check in on how that hour went!
Allison K Williams enjoys writing, teaching, and whatever the opposite of mansplaining is. She’s Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and will be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica in May 2019.
November 4, 2018 § 6 Comments
Having trouble making it to conferences? Finding workshop dates impossible or prices out of reach? Here’s a chance to enjoy a sampler of conference-style sessions you can watch in your yoga pants for free.
Starting November 8th, Village Writing School will present a series of free online lectures and interviews discussing memoir craft, marketing, platform-building and more. The video sessions will remain live until November 12th, and registrants may access them at their leisure over the five days.
Family and Religion—Two Scary Topics
Ruth Wariner’s memoir, The Sound of Gravel, details her escape at fifteen, with her brother and three younger sisters, from a polygamist cult in Mexico of which her father had been the leader. The book was an instant New York Times Best Seller and was called a “bracing, unforgettable story of survival” by Entertainment Weekly. Ruth will join us to discuss the difficulties of writing about these two emotionally-charged topics and why you should.
Telling Your #MeToo Story
It’s vitally important for writers to write and publish #MeToo memoirs. But what are the psychological challenges? What are the technical challenges? What writing techniques can help you portray a #MeToo scene? What should you keep in mind about your audience and about approaching publishers? What can you expect when you publically share your story? Tracy Strauss, who has published essays on writing #MeToo in Poets and Writers Magazine as well as Ms. Magazine, and whose own #MeToo story is forthcoming from Skyhorse Press, will guide you through this difficult topic with her courage and wit. You, too, can write for healing, for change, for empowerment.
It Doesn’t Take as Long as You Think
Rachael Herron, author of Fast Draft Your Memoir in 45 Hours and A Life in Stitches, will prove to you that you DO have time to tell your story. She’ll also show you how to figure out what that story is and how to find the best spine for it. No more excuses!
Thoughts on Your Story, Beginning to End
Marion Roach Smith, who has taught the craft of memoir to thousands of students both in university classes and online will show you what to consider before beginning your story. She will also examine some special challenges of writing about trauma and tell you what to do if you still don’t have a happy ending.
Other Ways to Tell Your Story
Allison K Williams, who teaches workshops on blogging and essays and hosts the Brevity podcast, will show you how to tell your story through live and written short forms. Even if a book is not your thing—or not your thing yet—Allison will show you how to get your voice out there and how to build a readership for your story.
Publishing Your Story—What New York Wants You to Know
Renée Fountain, President of GH Literary, will discuss the potential for memoir, the things to avoid, and what New York is looking for. And as a literary agent seeking memoir, she’ll tell you what she is looking for.
It’s Never Too Soon to Build Your Audience
Beyond a “platform,” you want an authentic connection with readers. What are some ways you can begin to build that relationship long before your book comes out? Dan Blank of WeGrowMedia will show you how such connections can become the most satisfying part of your writing career.
All sessions are hosted by Alison Taylor-Brown, the founder and director of The Village Writing School, a 501c3 nonprofit. The school is an independent creative writing program, located in beautiful northwest Arkansas. Its mission is to help writers tell their stories in a more readable, publishable way. Complete details and speaker bios are here.
Interested? Register here.
November 1, 2018 § 7 Comments
Remember that class where the teacher put people in groups and everyone shared a grade? How there was always that one person who slacked and drove everyone else crazy, and someone (possibly you) who worked double overtime to get the project done so you didn’t all fail?
Yeah, groups can really suck. Even writing groups, where we’re all there voluntarily…but so is That Writer. Plus the people who read too long, or ask for professional-level editorial feedback for free, or are all at wildly different levels.
But writing groups can also be great. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which writers all over the world shoot for 50000 words, from scratch(ish). I was on the fence about whether to participate: I’m really more of a memoirist…it’s a big commitment…my mom’s coming to town and I want to take her to see the penguins… But a writer friend and I have been trying to build more literary community in Dubai, and this seemed like a good opportunity. Not just to write—a lot—but to think through what makes a good group, in which I can do my work and still like everyone at the end.
As of Day One, here’s what’s working:
She who organizes, chooses… Dubai is a big place and not everyone drives. I thought about where to put the gathering that many writers could get to, what time of day would be best for the most people, if we could carpool, and then I realized, I’m doing this for me. For my work. I’m putting in the time to organize, so I get to pick. My times, my location.
But make it easy for people to help. We want to sustain the idea of writing in company beyond NaNoWriMo, so we made a WhatsApp group (it’s a texting app just about everyone outside the USA uses) where anyone who wanted to could set up a time and place to write, and anyone else could join them. You only want to write at night? You live on the other end of town? Great, tell us when and where and some of us will join you.
Stay loose… The group is for moral support and dedicated times and places to write. We’re not sticking to the NaNoWriMo model exactly—writers are sharing their specific, ambitious goals, but we aren’t all writing a first draft of a novel.
But set a big goal. One writer is doing 7 short stories this month. Another wants to generate enough blog posts to market for a couple of months so later he can focus on writing the actual book. I’m adding 50000 words to an existing manuscript, to get to the end of a first draft.
Be an enforcer. Our only rule: come and go as you please, but do it quietly. At the first meeting, I’m the person who popped up in the middle of my writing to say, “Welcome! Shhhhh! Jump in, we’re taking a break in 35 minutes and we’ll meet you then!” I’m also in charge of “Great break, back to the page everyone!” The sense of structure is appreciated, and having to set a good example keeps me focused, too.
Bring a multi-plug. Because the coffee shop you choose will have one inconveniently located outlet and everyone needs to charge.
Do your work. Writing groups can be a beautiful place of peace and harmony, or they can be (like today, around me) a swirl of corporate types doing a raucous team-building activity, opening and closing doors, writers coming and going, adding more tables, the waitress checking to see who needs more coffee. Put the headphones in. Focus. It’s good practice if you ever want to write at home. (The laundry can wait, I promise!)
It’s not a workshop. Generative writing in a communal space is not the time to share work. People can stay late if they want to share with each other. If you’re there to write, write, or you’ll end up resenting the time.
Writing is often solitary and sometimes thankless. Putting together a few people for peer pressure (I’m running out of steam! But they’re all still writing so I can’t stop!), fellowship, and cupcakes makes it feel better.
Want to jumpstart a project? Build a daily or weekly writing habit? Grab a group. Keep it simple, make strong choices, and keep going. Maybe the warm glow of group writing won’t last past the first week. Maybe we’ll make it to the end of November. But Day One was terrific. And I moved my Mom’s trip to December—the penguins will wait.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica, May 2019.
October 25, 2018 § 2 Comments
Recently, Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams was interviewed by humor writer Alex Baia at Hyoom. She discusses why every writer should take a playwriting course, and how to read actively to become a better writer:
I just bought an old, wrecked copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak at a library sale, to mark up and make notes in. But I think you don’t have to be that extreme. The process of learning an art goes in three stages: Be impressed, identify the tools, learn to use the tools. So copy down that beautiful paragraph, then analyze why it works—is it the flow, the voice, the way they anchor sentences with strong nouns at the end? Then write something parallel—same sentence structure, different nouns and verbs and adjectives. Then write your own version entirely, seeing how that voice or structure or style aligns with your own voice, and how it can influence the way you write your own voice.
Allison also talks about what she’s reading now, how asking for money on the street made her better at social media, and why learning to write is like sex:
People often assume sex and writing are innate talents, when in fact they are learned skills.
You can be a good writer and sell books if you have moderate-to-OK craft and tell a great story, But you cannot be a great writer without a respect for words that involves learning to use them properly. Language is a powerful tool. Maintain it and oil it and use it with care.
Read the whole interview at Hyoom (and music fans, check out Hyoom’s What Your Favorite Heavy Metal Genre Says About You).
September 13, 2018 § 23 Comments
When I was a temp, I wrote between phone calls on stolen photocopy paper; when I worked in bars, I used cocktail napkins. On long drives from circus gig to circus gig, I’d brace a notebook against the steering wheel on long, straight stretches of Georgia or South Dakota, scribbling notes for stories, phrases I liked, books I’d write some day. I kept thinking, if only I had a patron to pay my rent. An office. Free time. Surely writing would be easier with time on my hands. Of course I’d do more than an hour a day squeezed between shows, glitter and rosin smudging the paper. Diving into creative headspace would be easier full time. But I guessed I’d keep cranking out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day until my fairy godmother appeared.
Now I have a big table in a sunny room, a freelance editing job with dwindling hours, and a husband who says, “Just write—you don’t even have to publish.” I have the free time and cash to go to writing workshops. I have a co-working space with lightning-fast wifi. I’m still excellent at filling my time. I answer email first thing in the morning, do clients’ pages before my own, make pretty PowerPoints for conferences and go speak at them.
On one hand, writing while physically and financially secure should be much easier. Not wondering where my next meal is coming from has given me time and space. But making writing my job-that-need-not-pay has also blunted some of the urgency. I don’t have to finish this essay now, it’s another fresh morning tomorrow. I don’t have to prove my talent or worth to all my co-workers, because I’m already surrounded with people who take writing seriously.
Back when I was a full-time performer, I told other entertainers all the time, “Quit your day job. You get better when you’re hungry.” In a field where every gig was a one-time booking and we often literally passed the hat after shows, making a full-time living depended on getting much better very quickly. If I wasn’t funny, I didn’t eat, so I got funny. Personal dignity became much less valuable when weighed against paying rent. Every comedian finds ways to abase themselves while still controlling the room, and dignity emerges out the other side brushing its sleeves. Dignity responds to, “Do you really make a living at this?” with “I’ve been a college professor, and this pays about the same, plus I don’t have to go to committee meetings.”
Not writing to eat slows me down, but I’m making better work—it’s more considered, careful, well-phrased. I don’t count on shock value. It’s no longer enough to write the story no-one else is brave enough to tell—it has to be told well. I take time over chapters I would have banged out ten years ago. In fact, it takes me just about ten years to write a book. Two years of generating material, two years of dicking around, four years of fallow time where the manuscript reproaches me from my desktop every time I open the laptop, and two years of getting down to business.
I hope it’s worth it. I hope the book I’m nearly done with will be better than if it took me two years or a year or nine months to write. But in the end, there’s no way to know.
At my desk, my husband picks up my fancy noise-canceling headphones, and says mock-derisively, “You don’t have a hardship in the world.” Then he shakes his head and says seriously, “Must make it hard to write.”
He’s right. He’s wrong.
I still crank out a hundred or five hundred or a thousand words a day, and I do it in about an hour, squeezed in between editing and housework and social media. I can’t write more than a couple hours a day unless I’m in full-on retreat mode, sustainable only for a couple weeks in an isolated place where someone else is cooking meals. I watch TV, which was not a part of my life on the road, and my husband and I take turns pausing the show and predicting what’s going to happen next. Maybe it’s making me a better storyteller. Maybe it’s resting my brain. Maybe it’s wasting my time.
I’ll write when I’m hungry and I’ll write when I’m secure. More money and time doesn’t make me write (much) more, and I’m not going to feel guilty or sad about that. A book takes the time it takes, and that’s not anyone else’s timeline. Writing is what I do, and I do it at the speed I can.