Putting your Best Face Forward

January 29, 2019 § 8 Comments

Blue sky, green wheat field, and a redheaded woman in a blue jacket and a wheelchair, sitting chest-deep in the wheat.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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Can’t Means Won’t

January 22, 2019 § 8 Comments

The first day of a new circus workshop, there’s always one. Leading warmup, my fellow coach announces to a room full of high school students, already groaning in a leg stretch, “We’re gonna go for gold! Slide that front leg toward the splits!”

Near the side of the room, a kid bails out onto his butt, muttering, “No way, I can’t do that.”

Our coaching ears perk up. I call across the mats, “There’s one word we don’t want to hear in rehearsals. That’s ‘can’t.’ Because can’t means won’t—”

The students who’ve worked with us before chorus along. “—And won’t means push-ups!”

I explain. “When you say ‘I can’t,’ you’re telling your own body, ‘I quit.’ We can’t help with ‘I quit.’ Instead, try to identify the problem—I’m losing my balance! My knee hurts! My partner keeps dropping me!—and we can help you figure that out.”

My coaching partner adds, “If we hear you say ‘can’t,’ you owe us five push-ups. And then you’ll be stronger!”

Splits are hard, and for every high school dancer who wants me to lift her front leg to increase the stretch, there’s another ten students grimacing with their legs at a 90-degree angle. Not every circus move needs the splits, but lengthening their hamstrings helps these students achieve more in rehearsal, and the long-term benefits of enduring unpleasantness to achieve greatness will serve them far beyond next weekend’s show.

The ‘can’t’ whine I most often hear from writers is about platform. I hear it as misery:

I don’t understand Twitter. I’m too old.

I hear it as snobbery:

For one thing, I don’t do social media, and don’t intend to…until I retire: Whatever rewards may come from being an author, it’s not worth my privacy or putting my current (quite nice) paycheck at risk.

I hear it as despair.

Nobody pays attention to me online anyway.

Can’t means won’t. Won’t means working much harder to sell not only your book, but your query, concept, and voice to agents, publishers, and readers.

This ‘can’t’ includes two fundamental misunderstandings:

  1. Platform=Twitter, Facebook and blogging
  2. Engaging in building platform means revealing everything about your personal life online.

Platform is the number of people you can reach who might buy your book. Twitter and Facebook aren’t actually that effective, but they’re good for constant low-level engagement with your readers and other writers who will champion your work.

The best platforms are public speaking, mass media, and newsletters. Can you speak about the topic of your memoir to people with the same problem or challenge? Can you publish an essay about it, or send press releases to line up interviews? Can you build a list, one email at a time, of people who’d like to be updated once or twice a month on your work, and share something cool, funny or useful?

Privacy is relative. Creative nonfiction writers are often very self-revelatory about one particular story. But spilling your alcoholism or distance hike on the page doesn’t mean having to reveal your current marriage issues. Social media works for you: you do not work for social media. You are under no obligation to be more or less private about any particular issue. You can engage in politics publicly or not. You can post pictures of your face or not. What matters to your readers is whether you have something interesting to say, and that they’d like to pay (eventually) to hear more.

Sure, you can sell a book without any platform at all. If what you have to say is incredible enough, you can sell it written in crayon on a burlap bag.

Most of us are not that good.

Most of us depend on a mix of excellent-but-not-earthshaking writing, intriguing story, reasonable platform, and literary citizenship. More of one compensates for less of another: someone with millions of Instagram followers and a fascinating story don’t have to write as well as a writer’s-conference veteran telling their unique spin on the recovery memoir. Incredible writers can have a smaller platform. Literary citizens known for sharing others’ work will find promotion opportunities for themselves come more easily.

Don’t say you ‘can’t’ do social media, because that’s not helping you. Instead, identify the problem:

I’m shy. Promote your subject expertise rather than your own life.

My family is super nosy and easily offended/I work for the government. Establish your online/promotional presence under a pen name. By the time you publish, that persona will fully exist.

I despise social media. Build that public-speaking career—local clubs like Lions and Kiwanis are a great low-stakes audience. Get everyone’s email and start your newsletter.

Embrace platform-building as a challenge. What you have to say is meaningful, so why not start sharing it now? Why not reach toward the people who need your words even before your book is out?

Later in the circus workshop, I heard ‘can’t’ again, from the bar of the triple trapeze. I called out, “McKay, you owe me two!”

McKay smiled. “Only two? I thought it was five.”

“It’s been a long day and you’re working hard,” I said.

McKay popped out two tight, sharp push-ups, hands under his shoulders, his body perfectly aligned, then got back in line for his next turn on the trapeze—a tiny bit stronger than before.

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When she’s not blogging here, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams teaches Starfish Circus, a school residency & camp program in which 50-150 students grades K-12 put up a full circus show in two weeks. It’s pretty cool.

Time Travel

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.

Nope.

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?

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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?

The Golden Ticket

November 29, 2018 § 11 Comments

Sure I’d love to refer you! I’m not freaked out by your in-person request to a stranger at all!

The first time I queried a book, I made a list of 100 agents and queried 35. Most were cold pitches: I found the agent online, researched what they represented and how to query them, and sent off my query+five pages. Or query+ten pages. Or +first three chapters pasted below. Or +fifty pages as a docx attachment and a synopsis of up to 500 words using only serif font and be standing in Virabhadrasana II when you hit send.

I jumped through all the hoops I was told to jump through. Most sent form rejections, or slightly personal rejections, or didn’t respond at all. Two agents asked for the full manuscript, and both of those agents were referrals.

A referral is:

A personal recommendation
From someone who has read your work
Preferably the work you’re querying right now
And knows the agent or editor well enough that their word is trusted.

Sometimes an agent who rejects your query suggests you try another agent, but most referrals come from fellow writers with a business or personal relationship with the editor or agent.

Referrals are little golden tickets to the head of the line. You may not make it out of the chocolate factory, but referred queries get read sooner and more carefully. The agent is more likely to ask for pages even if they don’t love the query, but they do love your mutual connection.

What isn’t a referral? Posting to Facebook:

I wrote a memoir about X can anyone tell me what agents might be interested in that subject matter?

This is largely futile. No-one wants to offer up a name and then the writer emails with Violet Beauregarde referred me because giving a name isn’t a referral. Plus, agents’ wishlists change. The agent seeking travel memoirs six months ago just got five good proposals in her inbox and doesn’t need more. For current subject- and genre-specific information, use the agent’s own website, Manuscript Wishlist and #MSWL on Twitter.

Just how many metaphorical chocolate bars are you going to have to eat to get your golden ticket? Maybe none—maybe you’re already close with someone whose agent is looking for exactly what you wrote. But most writers need to start unwrapping those Wonka Bars even before they’ve finished their manuscript.

1) Start making your agent list now. What writers do they represent, and do you know any? Look up writers you know or have studied with—who are their agents?

If you know someone connected to an agent you’d like to query, buy and review that person’s books. Does the writer teach? Attend their workshops and ask intelligent questions. Join their mailing list. Tweet about their work and retweet (with a positive comment) events and books they promote. If you know them in person and they aren’t your teacher, offer to read their work. You don’t have to be at the same place in your writing careers—it’s OK for newbies to say, “If you’re ever looking for a reader, I’d love to practice giving feedback.”

2) Finish your book. Your work reflects on the person who referred you. This is time for your best final-draft work, proofread and polished. Write your query, get feedback and make revisions.

3) Make it easy to say No. Your writer-acquaintance truly may not have time, or maybe Violet already referred three people to her agent this month. Phrases like “I understand you may not have time” or “if you think this might be a fit for Agent Gloop” or “I’m querying widely but if you’re able” let them off the hook. Even if Violet’s true feeling is, This is a dreadful book no way am I referring it, she might like the next one, so give her a gracious escape. But do ask outright: it takes more time to read between the lines than respond to a clear request.

4) Make it easy to say Yes. Paste your query and first 5 pages (or whatever the desired agent’s guidelines specify) below your email signature. If Violet’s feeling it, she can hit forward and it’s done. This also lets her skim your work to remember you’re a fantastic writer and she’ll look good by recommending you. If Violet would rather introduce you in a new email, she knows you’re ready to go while the referral is fresh in the agent’s mind.

5) Thank you note. Referring connects the other writer’s reputation to you, and it takes time from their writing day. Send an email or write a quick note. No gifts that cost, because that feels like pay-to-play. Write the email in a way that requires no additional response: your goal throughout this process is to take as little of the referring writer’s time and attention as possible.

Referrals are a golden gift. But they aren’t the only way to get attention. Steps 1 and 2 are basic literary citizenship, and we can all do them whether we’re querying soon or not. Sure, some of this feels like literary nepotism, and it’s a lot of work. But it’s part of being a writer, so get started—those WonkaBars aren’t going to eat themselves.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and currently in the query trenches again.

How to Write a Bestseller

November 13, 2018 § 18 Comments

Nice to meet you, sir. Thanks for coming to our writing circle. OK, everyone, let’s say what we’re working on for the next hour.

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!

 

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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.

Free Online Memoir Summit

November 4, 2018 § 6 Comments

Wake up, writers! I just heard the most amazing thing about authorial voice!

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.

Sessions include:

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.

Group(s) Work

November 1, 2018 § 7 Comments

We’re gonna write…ya wanna make something of it?

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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica, May 2019.

Twitter for the Distractible and Retiring

October 30, 2018 § 13 Comments

black and white headshot of a white woman with shoulder-length light hair, a striped scarf and a black scoop-neck topBy Kirsten Voris

Disclaimer: This is not a Twitter primer. It’s a look at how one writer began to get over herself and hammered the first nail into her media platform.

I have two domain names and no website. A poorly curated LinkedIn. Otherwise, I have shunned social media. When I hear the word platform I close up like a Venus flytrap at mealtime. I hate the idea of spending time on it. My words, I decided, will sell themselves. Magically.

Then, in August, I attended a Memoir Proposal Workshop at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference. I have no proposal-ready memoir, but I like to over-prepare. As it turns out, I needed to be on-hand to receive a message from the cosmos via Brevity’s Social Media Editor, Allison K Williams.

NEWSFLASH: I don’t need Instagram and Facebook and Twitter to have a platform. It’s more effective to do one well.

Only one!

My all-or-nothing thinking was still coming to grips when Allison described her Twitter tending.

Once a day, during the morning bathroom visit. Then, fini.

Limits! Here was an example of someone who could set them. Could I?

My butt-in-chair writing lifestyle is fragile. I rely on the Pomodoro technique. My writing partner. I need scaffolding. Accountability. Do I want to add platform grooming to the list of things I am compelled to do to sell the writing I have only just begun producing?

Or was it another task I’d abuse to avoid my date with @tomatotimer?

Seated among the motivated and the proposal-ready, I gave in to the ambient vibe. Writing memoir? Platforms are just part of the deal.

I chose Twitter.

Because: character limit. And I could manage it during my morning toilette.

But I needed more limits.

Limit One: There is a Time for Tweeting and a Time for Writing and it’s Not the Same Time.
Recently, I went on silent retreat. No phone no computer no talking. For three days, I did one thing at a time. When I came home and began unpacking, sorting, emailing, eating—simultaneously—it felt icky. Multi-tasking confuses me.

Limit Two: Hit Send and Let It Go.
As of this writing, I have tweeted 9 times. With each tweet, I fret: I’m unoriginal, un-writerly, dull. Oh, and self-absorbed. But tweeting is like writing an essay. At some point, I have to decide I’m done.

Limit Three: Keep it Writing Related
Twitter is a distraction minefield. My no-go list: Cats. Celebrities. Celebrity cats. Old boyfriends. People who suddenly stopped talking to me. Politics. I make an exception for Turkish politics written in Turkish by former neighbor @aykan_sever. Otherwise, Twitter is for my writing life, not @RealGrumpyCat.

Limit Four: No Late-Night Tweeting
The night I set up Twitter I could not sleep. I kept thinking about the profile I’d posted. In haste. Really? Why those seven words? It was well past midnight when I got up and dosed myself with homeopathic nerve tonic. Eventually, I slept. But I didn’t get on my phone. The phone amplifies ruminating. It’s a bright light. If I don’t sleep I can’t write.

Limit Five: Tweet to Give Love Not to Get It
Writers and editors have read my essays. Journals have published and rejected them. What have I done for these folks lately?

I’m part of a community. Tweeting, retweeting, liking and commenting on blog posts, essays and insights that inspire me is a way to support the community. Plus, I feel good when I do it. Plus it’s better than imagining everyone in Platform Land is ignoring me out of spite because my credits are 3 essays and an (unpublishable) 600-page manuscript.

Having established limits, I come to the heart of the problem. I still don’t want to draw attention to myself. Without a platform, I have heard, I’m as good as invisible.

Yes. I think. Right on.

However, few will see my work. And I claim to want that kind of attention.

I write because can’t think of a more gratifying way to spend my precious life energy. I dread writing and feel amazing when I’ve written. By joining Twitter I put myself on notice. I take my writing seriously. Twitter is part of my job, which is writing. This is my mantra.

But I need more than a mantra. Twitter requires stickers. I paste them in my journal, a visual reminder of each fearsome task I complete.

I have a vast sticker stockpile. I love to sticker shop. And take coffee breaks and watch cat videos. During writing time. Even without social media, I am distractible. So why not tweet? And commit to tweeting well? In support of my job. Which is writing.

I gave myself a frog sticker for writing this blog post. I will earn a dragon for sending it out. I celebrate patient improvement. I can learn to shill. Who better to shill for me, than me?
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Kirsten Voris tweets @bubbleate and gardens in Tucson, Arizona. You can find her #CNF @SuperstitionRev, @theknicknackery, @hippocampusmag and in two forthcoming anthologies. She is currently reworking the biography of a stage mentalist and planting her winter garden #amwriting #gardening.

On Reading Deeper and Writing Better

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).

Writing While Secure

September 13, 2018 § 23 Comments

Photo of an aerial silks performer in black leotard and green tights, upside down with arms out

Technically, my hands are still full

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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be speaking at the Florida Writers Conference October 18-21 in Orlando.

 

 

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