May 31, 2018 § 10 Comments
On Tuesday, we talked about publishers soliciting authors in the guise of a publication offer.
That’s not a book deal. That’s a (slick) commercial for their services.
But for some authors, “hybrid” publishing works. Could it be right for you?
Old-school vanity publishers know their terrible reputations, and many have rebranded as “hybrid.” They charge authors a “contribution” that pays their costs and a healthy profit margin. They don’t care if your book sells—they already made their money. You may end up with cartons of unsold books, text badly or not-at-all edited, dreadful covers, crappy page design.
True hybrid presses offer a legitimate package of publishing services. It costs more than self-publishing—they still profit before selling your book—but you’re not doing it all yourself. Hybrids can provide a smoother publication process, bookstore placement, reviews, and some of the legitimacy of an imprint.
Is hybrid right for you? Well…
1) Do you want a long-term writing career?
“At least I’ll be published” is the worst possible reason to go hybrid. Low first-book numbers make it harder to sell a second book. It’s better to be a debut author than one who’s sold under 10,000 copies—publishers want a positive track record or no track record at all.
Going hybrid, at least one of you thinks you won’t sell many copies. If the publisher thinks you’ve written a bestseller, they don’t need your money. If you think you can do better, pursue traditional publication or explore self-publishing.
But if you’re up for tenure, a reputable hybrid press gives you a resume credit. If you’re launching a public-speaking career and selling books after every motivational speech, you’re busy marketing yourself—let them handle cover design and proofreading.
2) How much energy do you have for marketing?
Even Big-Five published authors end up marketing their own book. But hybrid (and small independent/university) presses often lack media contacts. Does your potential publisher display at industry events like the Frankfurt Book Fair or BookExpo America? Do they have readings or signings at regional book festivals? Do they have a list of radio station managers to contact? Check their social media for links to author interviews and reviews in national media. If they can’t market your book in places that cost money or connections to enter, they aren’t doing anything you can’t do yourself.
If you’re newsworthy in a way related to your book—you just summited Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen or Sherpas; you gave six organs as a living donor; you’re a former child actor just out of rehab—then marketing isn’t your obstacle. Hybrid away!
3) Are you in a hurry?
Traditional publishing takes time. Your book comes out much faster with hybrid or self-publishing—sometimes at the cost of lower-quality editing, design and printing. But good hybrids have an established editing and design pipeline to scoot your book right through. If you’re dying of cancer or facing a major book-selling event next month, you may want to pay for publishing.
4) Do you want your book in bookstores?
Traditional presses can get your physical book on a shelf. Bookstores have near-zero desire to carry self-published books, so that’s where an imprint helps.
Go to your favorite bookstores and check for books by your potential hybrid press. Give titles and ISBNs and ask a clerk they’d stock those books or only special-order them.
Ask the hybrid press about returns and the retail discount. If it’s not “we take returns” and the industry-standard 55%—red flag!
5) What’s the royalty split?
Self-publishing, you control the price and get all the profit. Traditional publishing trades a chunk of the net for marketing and reputation. Hybrids take what you agree to give them…on top of the money you paid to publish. Before buying their package, make sure you’re OK with your percentage.
6) Do they want subsidiary rights like audiobooks, TV/movies, or foreign sales?
Red flag. These should stay with the author who pays to publish. It’s unlikely the press will market these rights anyway, and they don’t have enough skin in the game to demand a percentage.
7) Will they edit? What are the editors’ qualifications?
Is your book really done? Like really, really done? Is there still a nagging feeling in your heart that it could be better? Ask what kind of editing will be done, and by whom. “Our in-house editor proofreads” is not the same as helping your prose sing and your story hang together.
8) What are their actual, printed books like?
Order a couple titles. Is the paper thinner than you expected? Do you see typos, blurry print, bad layout? Is the cover art just plain ugly? Pull out books in the same genre from your shelves and make a table display. Do the hybrid books belong?
9) Due diligence!
- The Independent Book Publishers Association has set guidelines for hybrid presses. This is the bare minimum of legitimacy.
- Search the publisher name + “scam.” Search again on Absolute Write (make a free account for better info).
- Check Writer Beware, a wonderful resource that details bad-faith agents and publishers.
- The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have a list of what to watch out for when approached by a publisher.
- Read Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer for a greater understanding of the industry.
Going hybrid might be the right choice for you. But go in with your eyes open. Hybrid publishing is not a “book deal,” it’s a package of services you purchase. Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. This summer she’ll be at Cedar Ridge Writers Series, VCFA’s Postgraduate Writers Conference, and Hippocamp. Come say hello!
May 29, 2018 § 12 Comments
You open your email, and O frabjous day! A publisher has come calling! They’ve seen your work in a literary magazine and wonder if you have a chapbook, or would like to be in their anthology. Or you didn’t win a contest, but your work “shows merit” and “deserves to be published.” Maybe you wanted a faster process than querying agents, or figured your work better suited a small press, so you cast out to a few publishers, and one has bitten.
You read a little further. This publishing house “considers work for both traditional and hybrid publishing.” If your book is seen as better suited to a hybrid deal—perhaps due to “the difficulty in placing the books of new or untried authors, as well as the general increased competition in publishing today”—the publisher feels “that it may be necessary to ask for a contribution from you.”
Maybe it’s even right up front: We’re a hybrid press. Our package costs $XXXX, and you can add on additional services at $XXX, $XXXX or $XXXXX.
The email is reassuring. Someone has recognized the quality of your work. After all the hype about “platform,” someone wants your book based on your writing. You don’t have to hit 10,000 followers or make mailing-list spreadsheets. It’s a relief.
But most of the time, it’s not true.
Not (technically) a scam or a fraud. But a well-designed system to separate hopeful authors from hard-earned dollars, waste their time and leave them with unsold, often un-edited and poorly-designed books.
Remember the old saw about things that seem too good to be true? That maxim goes hand-in-hand with another cliche: You can’t cheat an honest man. You can only sell a five-dollar diamond ring to someone who thinks he’s ripping you off.
Writers who seek hybrid publishing “deals” aren’t grifters. But they are to some extent sidestepping the work of getting published. Submitting and pitching to small magazines, medium journals and mass media. Blogging/newsletter-ing to build their core audience. Going to readings and events, collecting names and emails. Being a literary citizen. We’re all looking for a lucky break, and lightning may well strike, but it usually strikes while we’re in the middle of the process. The process that sets us up to be able to sell books once we do get that publishing deal.
Most authors who pay to publish end up doing the real work anyway. Pounding the pavement to get their book in a few stores. Emailing the target audience (key demographic: “everyone I know who has ever read a book”). They’ll do that work with a larger cash investment than traditional publishing and far less potential monetary reward than self-publishing. Their copyright may end up in the publisher’s hands—the publisher who may also now own all their subsidiary rights.
Remember that part about “the process that sets us up to be able to sell books”? Memoir, creative nonfiction and self-help are hard to sell without “platform.” Basically, the number of people who will buy your book or spread the word about it. Platform can be:
- social media followers (10,000+ real followers who engage with your posts)
- a speaking career (at major events where books can be sold)
- group membership (i.e., a nationwide service club or large religious organization; a class of people like “patients suffering this disorder”)
- writing articles or essays about the book’s subject matter, and publishing them in medium-to-major mass media or significant literary journals
- a public career like radio show host or TV presenter
Without platform, a traditional publisher doesn’t want to buy the book because they can’t sell the book. It’s also hard to self-publish without enough people to sell the book to. Unfortunately, so many books come out each year that, without a built-in audience, it’s rare for readers to discover and purchase any single book. Novelists still market hard, but for some there’s an existing base of blogs, reviewers, and genre fans to help the book get momentum and word-of-mouth. Nonfiction books by non-famous people are usually not newsworthy, so the writer needs an existing audience who will spread the word and buy the book themselves.
One of the things you can do to start momentum for your work is to revise sections of the book as possible magazine or newspaper articles, and seek publication in mass media. You can also turn chapters into self-contained essays to submit to journals. Whether you end up with a traditional publisher or a self-supported plan, getting your work out there will help future sales, and help you gauge your audience. Memoirists who publish a “hot essay” (the legendary venue is Modern Love, but there are plenty more places) often get offers from traditional publishers, or have agents seek them out.
Legitimate publishers have writers beating down their doors. Unless a writer recently did something very newsworthy, made a big splash with an essay, or regularly speaks at large events, publishers don’t come to us. We go to them. Self-publishing is totally legit, but you can coordinate it yourself, and publish with Createspace, Lulu, Smashwords and/or Ingram. That’s more work, but usually costs less, and you make all the money and keep all the rights.
Sometimes a true hybrid publishing deal can be the right choice for some authors. On Thursday, we’ll talk about what a good hybrid deal looks like, why you might want one, and questions to ask the publisher.
May 15, 2018 § 49 Comments
I spent two years writing an anonymous sex blog five days a week. I told people daily blogging was great for a writer, that if I missed a day, readers emailed ‘are you OK?’. It was the most consistently I have ever written in my life. It was 100% truth all the time, scorched-earth truth, and by the end of two years I wasn’t sure if I was doing risky, stupid things to have something to write about, or if I was writing this material as an excuse to do risky, stupid things. Either way I was compelled.
I survived. My marriage did not. My long-term affair didn’t, either. I quit blogging and started a memoir. I thought the moments of risk and danger and sheer, unadulterated crazy would make a great memoir, and the friend-writers I entrusted with my secrets believed that, too.
An agent shopped the book for a year. Editors liked the voice but hated the story or vice versa. I wondered if the agent wasn’t powerful enough to sell the book. At a conference, a noted writer was intrigued by my subject matter and asked to see the manuscript, so I thought I’d pick a couple pages for reading night.
I flipped through.
The book had been written in a haze of untreated depression and grey sadness soaked every page. No wonder it never sold. It sucked. Even I didn’t want to read it ever again. I definitely didn’t want to waste my “I’ll read your manuscript” favor on it.
In 2013, I was performing a one-woman show in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The show had been a hit ten years before—now I was giving away tickets to homeless people to get butts in seats. I drove home after shows thinking, Why not just twitch the wheel and go right off that bridge? and That tree looks solid enough.
I told my then-boyfriend I was pretty sure I was depressed, I hadn’t been to therapy in a few years, and I thought I should see a doctor.
He said, “I guess I’ll have to read online about it. When people say they’re ‘depressed’ I always think, Come on, pull your socks up!”
I said, “I am the world’s champion sock puller-upper and this is more than I can handle.”
It had taken fifteen years to (grudgingly, desperately) decide my creativity wasn’t worth my life, because I was more afraid of pills than I was of depression. More afraid I’d “flatten out” my feelings, be unable to access them on the page, than I was of my own death.
I’ve heard other people say that, too. What if I lose my highs? What if I can’t feel anything anymore? What if I medicate the art right out of myself? In a Facebook group, someone asks for a friend—anti-depressants have sapped her ability to write. Before I can formulate an answer that’s direct but kind, a qualified nurse responds: if so, it’s the wrong medication. Another writer chimes in: there’s probably a barrier that isn’t the pills, and that’s worth examining with a writing coach or in therapy.
I got lucky. Wellbutrin was the right pill and it worked within a couple of weeks. I still cried at cute online videos. I still pulsed with joy at a student’s achievement, still wanted to have sex. I still wrote, still found scorched-earth truth. What changed was the edge of sorrow; the greasy black water of dread receded. Sadness was sadness instead of no-one will ever love you you are not worth loving. Anger was mental frustration and pain instead of my screaming, out-of-control body pulsing with fury.
I will probably take medication the rest of my life. After moving to a permanently sunny climate and marrying a man I adore, my career on track and writing going well, I tried tapering off. But fewer pills meant bursts of irrational rage, the dread licking at my feet again. My doctor asked, “Would you tell a diabetic they have a good life so it’s time to quit insulin?”
Depression and bipolar disorders poison us, make us think we can’t do anything and we have to do it all alone. That overdramatic nights and grey, dull days are survivable, other people have real problems. That medication is for the weak—mental illness should be overcome by force of will.
I owe it to my work to take my pills. I can’t speak for anyone else. The type of medication make a difference, and many people try several to find one that works. A supportive doctor makes a difference. Insurance and the accompanying peace of mind make a difference.
My mental health supports both my writing and the ability to share and sell my work. After being self-revelatory for years as a blogger and performer, I can tell my experience without embarrassment. This is not true for everyone. I’ve seen the shame barrier stop people from seeking out a doctor, or shopping around if the first doctor is unsupportive.
But if you’re on the edge of the dock with the dread licking your toes, take an inventory. How is this feeling helping your work? How is it hurting? If it’s been with you more than a year, positive thinking hasn’t fixed it. It might be time to try something else. Maybe it’s not a wall to break through but a burden to put down.
Maybe you can have your creativity and your life.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll teach turning your personal life into a memoir people actually want to read at the Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey (NYC-area) June 10th.
May 8, 2018 § 23 Comments
We’ve all been there.
Friend of Friend: What do you do?
Writer: I’m a writer.
Friend of Friend: Hey, I have a great idea for a book! Why don’t you write it and when it gets published we split the money?
Writer: [weak smile]
Ideas are the easy part. Sure, “high-concept” pitching is a thing—It’s Speed, but on a boat! It’s the Wizard of Oz, but in space!—but it’s a thing for writers with a few airport-ready books under their belt and a relationship with a major publisher. Everyone else has to actually, y’know, WRITE THE BOOK.
That’s the hard part.
Ideas ignite passion and inspiration. But getting 60,000+ words on the page takes time and craft. That guy at the party doesn’t understand that most writers have plenty of unwritten ideas scribbled on scraps of paper and dictated into our phones at 3AM, sparked by articles we’ve read, lectures we’ve heard, people we’ve met. We are drowning in ideas.
Most of our ideas will never take flight enough to spend years of our lives writing them down. We stockpile them, stacking up paper and browser links against the day we’ll be out of ideas. The pile itself becomes an obligation, a list of ignored tasks weighing on us.
Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Full closets have no room for new clothes. Stuffed files shut out new ideas. (This also—sacrilege!—applies to bookshelves.)
I spent two days emptying basement boxes from a house I no longer live in. It was mostly stuff I hadn’t used in five years, stuff I’d never even unpacked after moving to that house in 2003. I thought files would be the hardest part. Banker boxes and milk crates full of past teaching syllabi and class assignments and yes, idea after idea. Folders marked Plays to Write, Articles to Read, Possible Blog Posts. But about six folders into the first box, I noticed, These ideas aren’t that good. Or they didn’t resonate with me enough to be worth my time. Or they’re something I think about a lot and don’t need twenty pieces of paper to remind me.
I started with 30 storage boxes, 7 of them documents and files. I started with fear. What if I couldn’t get rid of any of it? Was I a failure if I threw away an idea I’d never tackled? What if I got sad, or angry at my past self? What if something I really valued had been destroyed by that water leak three years ago? After two days and the (paid) help of a friend, I’m still not done with the basement, but the dread is gone. So is most of the stuff. Seven boxes and 6 garbage bags to charity; 3 boxes and 2 bags to the community theatre; 6 bags of documents to the shredder; 6 bags of trash to the curb; a stack of empty boxes.
I’m keeping one box. One. Plus half a box of “letters and photos I don’t want to go through right this minute.”
I feel amazing.
In my one box, I have two files of ideas to be written. They aren’t fat files. They, plus my notebook, plus my brain that still works, are plenty of ideas for the rest of my writing life.
Ideas aren’t precious and they aren’t hard. Execution is hard, and keeping a paper fort of ideas doesn’t do anything for our work ethic.
Contemplating your own files with terror? Here’s how to get started:
Don’t sort in the storage space. Take everything into a clean room where it must earn its place.
- Multiple manuscripts with workshop notes. In the future, copy feedback into one document, which pinpoints problem locations even if everyone sees a different problem. Throw away notes from writers you dislike—they aren’t inspiring to use.
- Articles that sparked ideas. They’re all online.
- Old syllabi. You know how to write a syllabus.
- Old student evaluations. You’re never going to quote them.
- Anything on your computer and backed up. Double-check your backup process.
- Multiple copies of magazines you’re in. That’s why God invented PDFs. If your Mom wanted a copy, you already gave it to her.
- Other people’s work you never got around to commenting on. I hereby absolve you of writer’s karma. Cultivate one reader friend (or two) you regularly exchange with and don’t keep track, or a “muse” who reads everything you write and asks nothing in return.
- Box up books you thought would make you a better person if you read them and books you didn’t like but feel like you should. Get rid of unread classmates’ books inscribed with meaningful notes. Photograph the inscription if you feel really bad. You can delete the photo next year.
- Minimal notes/research for no more than six projects.
- One copy of things you wrote that lived on floppy disk/zip drive/your previous computer. You probably won’t ever type it up/scan it. Review next year and toss half.
- Your sense of humor
Keeping paper doesn’t lead to more/better writing. Trust that your brain is a pipeline. Flush out the reservoir and make space for new ideas.
April 24, 2018 § 20 Comments
Music is great for writing. Pop those headphones in, start up your two-hour Epic Music track or your carefully curated, book-specific playlist, get in your headspace and go go go.
Music is not great for reading. When I edit a manuscript with song lyrics used as epigraphs, or quoted from one character to another, or someone singing along, I have standard cut-and-paste language:
Consider whether these lines are necessary: using song lyrics falls under a specific copyright area that is not subject to fair use, and obtaining permission is tedious and can be difficult and expensive.
The short answer to “What about using some song lyrics in my memoir?” is “You can’t.” To elaborate, songs written after 1923-ish (depending on when you read this blog post) are almost certainly under copyright. The singer or band associated with the song may or may not be the writer(s). Once you google to find the writing credits, you’ll need to track down the publisher through ASCAP or BMI. The publisher does not want to talk to you until you have a publication contract, or specific, written publication plans including where you’ll be selling the book, the cover price, and how many copies you’re printing. Then the publisher bills you.
It can get expensive, Blake Morrison tells the Guardian:
I still have the invoices. For one line of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: £500. For one line of Oasis’s “Wonderwall”: £535. For one line of “When I’m Sixty-four”: £735. For two lines of “I Shot the Sheriff” (words and music by Bob Marley, though in my head it was the Eric Clapton version): £1,000. Plus several more, of which only George Michael’s “Fastlove” came in under £200. Plus VAT. Total cost: £4,401.75.
But what about “fair use”?
Fair use is the legal principle allowing us to quote lines or paragraphs from books under copyright. Quotations are fair use if the number of words used is a very small proportion of the total words in the original work; if the quote is properly attributed; and if it’s essential to the point you’re making in your own work. Song lyrics have not yet been held to a “fair use” standard. Arguably, even a line of a song is a fairly large proportion compared to say, 200 words from a 90,000-word novel. But poetry can be fairly used and often is. What makes songs different?
Publishers with deep pockets, excellent legal teams, and a strong precedent of defending their copyrights.
Beyond legal battles, it’s worth it to consider what impact the quoted lyrics will really have in your book. Does your reader associate “Janie’s Got A Gun” with that beautiful night you sat in a convertible, watching the ocean roll in below the hills? Or does she remember her school’s anti-violence initiative that used the literal message of the song? Will readers from another generation even know the song you’re quoting? Will they think of it as “Mom’s music” instead of “pulse-pounding jam”? Writers can’t control how readers react, so we might as well use words we can craft ourselves.
In the Brevity Podcast Episode 8, Geeta Kothari and I discussed using quotes within essays and stories. In her experience as an editor for Kenyon Review, lyrics often pull the reader out of the story on the page and into their own associations with the song. JoBeth McDaniel, from the Rush editorial board, mentions in the same episode that even quoting other non-song writing raises legal issues that editors just don’t want to deal with.
Sure, it’s a great feeling when a single lyric conjures up a world of emotion in our heart. But it’s both uncertain and a bit lazy to expect that line to do the same for every reader. Instead, ask yourself what emotional purpose that song serves, and put that feeling in the setting, in the narrative, in the dialogue. Or obliquely quote in a way that makes knowledge of the original song unnecessary:
He banged his head to Sweet Child O’ Mine and I wished hard I could like Guns N Roses. (Titles are OK!)
On the radio, Springsteen was on fire, singing his creepy lyrics about Daddy not being home.
We rolled down the windows and cranked up the stereo–GooGooDolls, The Cure, KLM, all the music everyone was listening to, the bass throbbing in my chest and making me feel like I was part of everyone.
You’ve got something important to say. Don’t lean on a song to say it for you. Use your words. Use your images. Use your experiences. Trust in your power to create your own music in the reader’s head.
April 17, 2018 § 10 Comments
In fifth grade, I won a county-wide writing contest. I think that’s how they got my name. I had been “selected” for Best Young American Authors. Or Who’s Who in Young Authors. Or 100 Young Poets. Something like that. Of course I was thrilled–I’d gotten a real letter in the mail telling me my special status and requesting a copy of my story, my bio…and an order form for the number of copies of the anthology I would buy at $45 each.
My mother figured out it was a racket, but I was only a little disappointed. I’d already gotten a medal and a certificate from the school superintendent, what greater prize could there be?
The anthology racket is still alive, barely. Self-publishing has made massive inroads on paying for the excitement of your name in print. Independent authors invest more up front, but make some money back in sales. Independents control the quality of the work and physical presentation, rather than being positioned with everyone else who wrote a check, regardless of their ability to write a coherent sentence.
But as one head of the publishing-scam Hydra hisses beneath a stone, another pops up, ready to do even less for authors, for even more money.
Maybe you’ve gotten an email: there’s a contest your book is eligible for! If you win, your book will be presented to movie producers and in an ad on Goodreads! Press releases will feature you! You can put shiny gold stickers on your book cover! And it’s only $75! Per entry! In as many categories as you want!
Sadly, these “contests” are simply money-making machines for the organizers. “Winning” adds no credibility to your book, doesn’t help with sales, and seldom results in any publicity beyond free internet announcements. In fact, there are often so many subcategories that everyone who enters, wins. Their $75 didn’t buy fair consideration and worthy competition–it bought a sticker. (Additional stickers may be purchased at just $25/pack!)
There are plenty of legitimate contests and awards. But contests that mean something are usually contests you’ve already heard of, or affiliated with reputable magazines or organizations. Entities that do more than hold contests. You might be part of their mailing list, but they rarely solicit your entry personally. You may need your publisher to submit the book on your behalf, or to be nominated by librarians or booksellers. The judges are published writers or noted agents and editors. Past winners include writers you’ve heard of, or whose biographies mention MFAs and literary or mass media publications. There may be an entry fee, but it rarely tops $50 for a book or $25-30 for a story or essay. Books can only be entered in the year they are released, and only in one category. Legit contests offer specific, measurable prizes, like “$1000 and a guest lecture at X College,” rather than un-checkable weasel-language like “promoted to industry insiders.” You don’t have to purchase your own prize stickers if you win.
Over at Writer Beware, Victoria Strauss points out ways to spot a for-profit contest…
There are any number of moneymaking contests that focus on published books. Their M.O.: a huge entry fee, dozens or scores or even hundreds of entry categories, and the sale of additional merchandise to winners and honorees. Prizes are typically things that cost the sponsors little or nothing (website features, electronic press releases, vague promises of publicity campaigns). Judges are never named–and may not exist–and, although commercially published books are sometimes declared winners, the contests are marketed mainly to small press and self-published authors.
Profiteer awards and contests don’t typically command a lot of name recognition, but if you win or place, you’ll be able to tag your book as an “award-winning book” and yourself as an “award-winning author.” How much readers care about such designations, though, is an open question. With all the fake review scandals, as well as readers’ increasing disillusion with authorial self-promotion, I think book buyers have become more cynical in general about what authors say about themselves.
Pay-to-play contests are aimed squarely at authors eager for recognition, and for that extra something to help their book stand out. Cynical, shady organizations recognize and exploit that hunger.
Genuine book awards do launch careers. They’re also highly competitive, and a lot less “rah-rah” about the prizes, because their name alone is the prize (i.e. Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel). One day, you’ll be in the running. For now, skip the contest entry and use that time to write another essay, something that will draw real attention to your book. Something beautiful. Something more powerful than a $75 sticker.
Wondering if a contest is legit? The Alliance of Independent Authors has a handy chart.
Writer Beware is a valuable resource for all writers. Their blog and searchable archives explain scams and name and shame predator agents and unscrupulous publishers.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Creating Memoir From Memory on June 10, as part of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey.
April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
This episode, Brevity takes a detour into fiction, speaking with debut author Rhiannon Navin about making fiction from fact and how she turned her real-life emotional experience into a novel. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled creative nonfiction, with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.
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.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below.
Next episode, it’s time for our listeners’ very own One-Minute Memoirs! Audio Editor Kathryn Rose and I will discuss what made the winning submissions stand out, and how to make your own story pack maximum punch in minimum space. And you’ll hear 15 fantastic, very short memoirs.
Show Notes: Episode #9 People and Books
Find out more about:
Useful Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases to Describe Ander Monson:
- bad boy
- future addict
- serious and accomplished
- brainy but beautiful
- more than likely delusional
- bright but misguided
- hurt, badly, baldly
- trying real hard to be good
March 29, 2018 § 6 Comments
Tuesday, I wrote about planning an upcoming retreat. After deciding to focus on full-manuscript revisions, making a website and budgeting, I needed to plan the retreat itself. How would I schedule the time? What would the writers expect? I turned to some experts for advice.
What surprised you when you first started planning/leading/speaking at retreats?
Ryder Ziebarth, founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series: The special requests were a bit of a revelation—can you offer more fruit next time? It’s too cold in here; it’s too hot in here; can you possibly rent more comfortable chairs next time? I forgot my coat (notebook, lipstick, power-cord) can you mail it to me? All quite reasonable requests, but I had to learn that I am now not just a writer, but a writer in the hospitality business.
Lisa Romeo, retreat leader and author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss: Regardless of whether an event is labeled as “generative” or not, if there’s scheduled quiet writing time or not, if there’s an option for sharing work or not, if it’s called a workshop or retreat or seminar or intensive—it’s not unusual for those registering to expect some or all of that, or none of that! So it’s enormously important for organizers to publish a very clear description, and follow up with a fuller description and instructions for registrants, so when folks arrive they’re prepared and know what to expect.
Joanne Lozar Glenn, leader of Write Time Write Place Write Now local and destination retreats: The panic that hit me a few days before I had to get on the road for the retreat. As an educator I was comfortable leading writing activities, I knew most of the people who’d be attending, and yet, in those last few days before my first retreat, I was absolutely terrified.
What’s important to consider in the retreat schedule and your own leadership?
Hananah Zaheer, partner in Mind The Gap travelling retreat collective: I have attended retreats that are fairly isolated from the world (VCCA and Rivendell) and were great for working on projects I had started. While the completely open-schedule retreat means one can work any time one chooses, I found that some structure to the day was helpful to me. When my partner and I planned the first collective trip to London, we created a loose schedule with writing time, optional visits to museums and plays, and two readings to be able to share whatever we were creating. This provides a nice, inspirational break to get back to writing.
Ryder: Gauging attention spans. You have to interpret body language to know when your participants need a break. Plan at least one five-minute break for a stretch and some water, etc. at the end of every hour.
Hananah: I think it’s a nice bonus to have a retreat where food is included…such an unexpected little freedom.
Joanne: Participants are excited about having dedicated time to write. They’re also scared. You’re asking them to risk. In a sense you’re asking them to show up naked on the page. So I recommend figuring out a signature way of making them feel welcome and safe.
I find a card with an image/message that resonates with the activities, whether that’s to have a sense of “play” about the writing, or to stand strong in your truth and write with power, for example. One of my last tasks before leaving for a retreat I’m leading is to write a welcoming letter that builds on that theme, tuck it inside the card, and have one waiting for each writer when they check in.
Lisa: Stay on track and deliver what you promised; yet be alert to topics attendees introduce. They may provide great teaching moments and if they seem to capture the writers’ attention or imagination, a spontaneous digression can be an exciting addition to the agenda.
Ryder: It was important to me the Cedar Ridge Writers participants were heard, that everyone’s work was heard if they wanted to share it—even if it cuts into the next exercise.
Joanne: Find a way to match the risk your participants are taking. I used to think my job was to “hold the space,” and that I couldn’t both hold the space and write. But gifted workshop leader Pat Schneider (who founded Amherst Writers and Artists) set me straight. “You won’t write your best work when you’re also responsible for leading a retreat,” she said, “but it’s important to show you’re willing to take the same risk you’re asking your workshop participants to take.” She was right. So I started writing (and sharing what I wrote) during our sessions.
Maybe a year or so later, a retreat participant and I were talking about that idea of risk-taking when sharing work. She told me, “When you didn’t write and share with us, I always wondered whether it was because you didn’t trust us.” That shocked me. No matter your intention or reason for doing one thing or another, it’s going to come across differently to everyone who’s there. The only thing you can do is be as clear as you can when communicating, and then let go of the rest because it’s out of your control. That’s hard, and something I have to really work at.
What did you expect to matter that wasn’t a big deal after all?
Lisa: That everyone in the room be at the same skill level. I’ve actually found it’s much more interesting for everyone when you have a mix of experience represented.
Ryder: I’d never taught before presenting my first workshop. Once I got over my nervousness, I found I was actually comfortable in the role, and I’m pretty sure no-one guessed I was scared to death.
Joanne: Being 100% prepared and scripted. Being prepared is important, of course—the less you have to worry about the more you can be available and present. But I find the Buddhist concept of ‘not too tight, not too loose’ helpful to remember. And getting lots of sleep. If you’re 80-90% prepared and well-rested (and fed), it’s a lot easier to respond in a creative, authentic way to what is happening, and to make the most of a teachable moment.
What are you planning next?
Hananah: I started finding local groups to connect with, to participate in readings and hear what the local writing scene is like. When I plan the Mind the Gap retreats, my biggest concern is finding a location where participants can benefit not just from the travel but also from the local literary scene, museums, bookstores, etc. The next Mind the Gap retreat is coming up in October.
Lisa: My first book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss will be published by University of Nevada Press on May 1, 2018. I’ll be speaking about the writing process at the Cedar Ridge workshop June 10th, and other events listed on my website.
Joanne: Upcoming “Get Away and Get Writing” retreats will be in the USA and abroad.
Ryder: I decided to “GO BIG” and move the fourth Cedar Ridge workshop to our local public library, which holds four times the amount of people I can host at my house. Creating Memoir From Memory will be June 10th in Bedminster, New Jersey.
And from Allison: Armed with the information these retreat leaders generously shared, I feel a lot better about my own Rebirth Your Book manuscript-work week in India in June. I’ll also be leading Creating Memoir From Memory at Cedar Ridge.
Do you lead a retreat? Do you want to? Please tell us about your retreat—or ask a question for your own planning—in the comments!
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
March 27, 2018 § 10 Comments
From a one-day workshop in your hometown to a three-week residency in a distant artists’ colony, there’s magic in sharing time and space with other writers. But maybe you’re tired of waiting for the right time, location and price. What about organizing your own retreat? How hard can it be to pick a place, decide whether someone’s teaching or you’re just sharing workspace, round up a few friends and go?
That said, you might want to do it anyway.
Back in 2015, I attended Joanne Lozar Glenn’s session on retreat-planning at Hippocamp. I studied her handouts, thinking this could be fun? Maybe?
I looked around. Writer friend Hananah Zaheer holds a biannual retreat with a collective of writing pals, taking turns teaching craft elements, meeting in different cool cities. Ryder S. Ziebarth hosts one-day workshops on her farm in rural New Jersey, inviting guest speakers like memoirist Lisa Romeo. Joanne herself leads single-day and multi-day workshops year-round. I googled ‘writing retreats.’ Writing for Caregivers. For Ministers. Jumpstart Your Memoir/Novel/Nonfiction Proposal. Writing in Ireland, in Mexico, in Hamlet’s castle. A smörgåsbord of residencies and workshops. I thought, I’ll just sit with this idea for a while.
Flash-forward to December 2017. I knew I wanted a retreat in India, in June. I’d led plenty of small-group immersion tours. I got good reviews when I taught. But I had three editing-client manuscripts due in January, my ideas hadn’t solidified…maybe it just wasn’t going to happen.
Then my husband made me a website. Surprise!
Suddenly I had to write copy. Pick the right boutique hotel. Choose a focus for the week. Make decisions. I checked out an expensive learn-to-plan-a-retreat course online. I could take the class or keep paying rent. But their free intro videos made two major points:
- A “destination” retreat isn’t just a workshop in a pretty place. The location should complement and inspire the work.
- Narrow your audience. Instead of “anyone with money and pages who has a week off and wants to go to that place,” specifically define an immediate, pressing problem and how you can help them solve it. Market your retreat to people who have that problem badly enough to make time, find the cash, and get there. Be ready to deliver 100%—after their time with you, the problem should be solved.
I’d already picked India so I had to reverse-engineer the connection between work and place. Preferably without appropriating Indian religious beliefs or spiritual practices outside my culture. Colonial Fort Kochi had been Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British, and ruled by other Indian kingdoms before independence, so what about tapping into rebirth/regeneration from a historical perspective?
What writer-problem could I solve? What’s been missing from previous otherwise-terrific workshops I’ve gone to? Well, I often don’t make much progress on my own work. It takes hours to thoughtfully critique 25 pages each for as many as 10 classmates, then discuss them in class, and maybe half the notes I get back are useful. I want the teacher’s attention and I want to work on my own pages. I want a goddamn Oompa-Loompa, and I want it now. There had to be other writers who felt like this…I hoped.
My husband—a numbers guy—suggested a “break-even” spreadsheet: list every expense, including planning and teaching hours. Hotel rooms. Workspace. Meals. Local guides—don’t forget the tips! I researched other retreats’ offerings; the list got longer. Insurance. Welcome baskets. A reading night—wine? How much wine? How many hours to read everyone’s full manuscript in advance? Add profit on top, divide by number of participants, and that’s what tuition costs. I figured a low profit for the first year—a small bonus on top of hours worked. Get it off the ground, make money later if it’s a success.
Now I had numbers and a website. I knew the retreat would focus on major revisions of existing manuscripts (rebirth!), working only on one’s own pages, and ideally, each participant finishing their current draft. But what if I totally sucked at this and everyone had a terrible time and hated me forever?
I turned to some experts for advice.
February 22, 2018 § 25 Comments
A few years ago I studied at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.
They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?
I said, “But there’s this countdown…”
“Countdown to what?”
And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.
I’d spent seven years with this character and story in my head. For me, the gun was just there. Why wouldn’t it be? But it wasn’t on the page.
Editing memoir, I often see the same quirk of a major missing piece.
Dad’s an alcoholic? That’s why he acted like that? It’s not in here for the reader. Adult-writer-you might want to make that clear even if child-narrator-you is oblivious.
There’s a ton of money supporting this giant home renovation in another country. The reader wants to know at least briefly how you got it.
Wait, there was an implied sex scene after the picnic at the end of that chapter? Please write enough of it that we know it happened. Even if you just take off her shirt or stroke her hair.
It’s hard to remember all the information readers need to make sense of our story–not because there’s too much to tell, but because we already have a full background briefing. We’re sick to death of the details. We’re afraid to be too obvious, to overwrite, make our work too simple or somehow un-literary by speaking plainly.
I’ve said before, all books are mysteries. Just as if we read a whodunit where the murderer didn’t show up at all until the page before he’s caught, the reader feels ripped off if they don’t have the breadcrumbs to follow your trail. Think about re-reading a classic sleuth novel, and the pleasure of noticing all the clues you missed the first time around, how each puzzle piece falls into place, the last detail snapping into focus right at the villain’s unmasking.
Writing memoir also calls for careful clues. Show the life experience on the way to discovery of illness that shows you can fight (or are fighting for the first time), and the team of doctors, family and friends fighting with you. The hints of family history overheard as children, that now you know were secrets covered up.
It’s counter-intuitive, but don’t surprise the reader. When we reveal the hidden reasons behind our torment, or show our triumph, or beat the tumor, we want the reader instead to be shocked. Fascinated that it turned out this way, but realizing that of course that’s how the story had to end. We want our books to be heavily laden vehicles with bad brakes, rolling down hills toward brick walls. We’re shocked at the impact–but having watched the dump truck full of chickens gather speed, we’re not surprised. If the brakes suddenly worked again, stopping the truck abruptly inches from the wall, it’s still a powerful shock (plus relief!) but again, it’s not a surprise. One way or another, everything pointed to an explosion of feathers and squawks.
Take a look at your essay, or your manuscript. What’s the stunning conclusion, the revelation, the connection the reader makes at the last minute? Go back and find the clues. What logically leads to this conclusion, step by step? Is it subtle enough to still need to finish the story to find out what happens, but clear enough that a reader who doesn’t know the plot already will say, “Ohhhhhhh. Yeah. That had to happen–it’s the only way.”
The illusion in our heads is of a fully realized world, provided with every necessary action and relationship to contextualize our story. The reader only gets what’s on the page. Give them enough cards and top hats to be in on the illusion, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. No chickens were harmed in the writing of this post.