The Truth Is Out There: Your (Nearly) Free Publishing Education

May 6, 2021 § 22 Comments

My MFA taught me a lot about writing. It didn’t teach me jack about publishing. Yet somehow, I published. I queried. I got an agent. I’m publishing again. And through all that, I became someone who gets paid to teach people how to write and publish. I can tell authors how to write a query, when to send it and to whom. I can say why a manuscript is too short, what can be cut if it’s too long, and how to save a thousand dollars on editing with fixes you can do yourself in a (very intense) weekend. I can even make you like social media—and discover why you don’t really need quite so much of it.

I acquired this information long after I finished my MFA, and I got most of it for free. Two years before my first round of querying, I began reading 8 different agent blogs, going back in the archives a couple posts at a time until I’d read their entire blogs. In the process, I saw how publishing evolved 1998-2010, and learned whose taste (and advice) had been proven right. Since then, I’ve broadened my sources, keeping current with publishing news, platform-building trends, and writing techniques so I can share what I know with you.

Unless you’re also planning on becoming an editor/coach of both fiction and memoir, you don’t need to know everything I know. But you do need to know a lot. Fortunately, most of what you need is already available online, where you can access a wealth of writing, editing, platform and publishing information at your convenience, in your pajamas, for (mostly) free.

Sources I recommend:

Publishing

Writer Beware! the Blog covers publishing bad practices and scams, and they aren’t afraid to name names with documentation. Read as far back in the archives as you can, and you’ll know how to avoid existing scams and recognize new ones.

The #Amwriting podcast gives useful and specific information about the writing process, publishing and marketing from a literary agent, two authors, and a variety of special guests. Lively and fun listening!

Querying

While Query Shark (dormant, but excellent archives) focuses on fiction queries, watching how queries evolve from terrible to “send now!” and seeing common mistakes will teach you to improve your own.

Kate McKean’s Agents and Books newsletter has both free and paid versions ($5/month). Past newsletters include advice on querying, the parts of a book contract, and what to do when there’s a mistake in your book’s online listing.

Writing

Want writing assignments to magically appear in your inbox? Here they come! The Story and Spark newsletter offers biweekly craft lessons with a short story and a writing prompt. Matt Bell’s newsletter offers monthly writing exercises with wonderful context.

Jane Friedman offers frequent, inexpensive webinars (usually $25) focusing on different aspects of writing and publishing, with handouts, recordings, and Q&A. (My next one, Memoir From Memory, is May 27)

Creative Nonfiction magazine offers inexpensive webinars (usually $15-25) on writing and publishing, especially for those with a more literary bent. Upcoming topics include daily writing practice, incorporating details, and my own Writing Powerful Sentences.

It’ll take more of your time, but volunteer as a reader for your favorite literary magazine (just email them and ask when/if they need readers). Nothing will teach you more about the submission process, and what makes engaging writing, than seeing what actually arrives in a literary inbox.

Literary Citizenship

The weekly Virtual Author & Writer Events newsletter lists free and paid readings, classes, workshops, talks and author interviews. (You can list your own events, too!)

The Writers Bridge Platform Q&A, biweekly on Zoom, covers publishing, self-promotion and writing better, and includes networking time with other writers, and a lively chat box each episode. The May 11 episode will focus on querying.

Marketing

The gentle, Canadian podcast And She Looked Up Creative Hour, aimed at visual artists, has process, selling, and writing-life advice. Start with Episode 18: How to Get a Book Deal when Nobody Knows Who You Are.

Jane Friedman’s Sunday Business Sermons: Part of her service to the community, Jane’s a publishing expert sharing what’s made her successful, from mailing lists to online courses to how she gets everything done. Watch the replays on Facebook.

People who want to sell you something: Very often, experts and coaches offer free introductory webinars—usually about 30-45 minutes of information and another 20-25 minutes of “buy my services.” Social posting apps like Tailwind and Preview send regular newsletters with tips and tricks for using and enjoying Instagram. You might want their services eventually, but you can access the free information now. Websearch [topic I want to know about] + “free webinar” or “free training” and you’ll be amazed what pops up.

You can start reading/watching/listening casually, or plan a curriculum for yourself with regular times to learn, do additional research, and blog or write from your new information. However you do it, work self-education into your routine. I listen to Jane Friedman while I do the dishes; literary podcasts in the car. I bought a seated exercise bike so I can pedal while catching up on social media and newsletters (sorry, Peleton-eers).

Whether or not you have an MFA, educating yourself about publishing is a largely self-driven process. The truth is out there. It’s (mostly) free. And it’s up to you to find it.

Tell us in the comments who you love for writing and publishing info!

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to learn what she knows? Writing, editing, publishing and platform consultations can be booked here.

A Glamorous Retreat? No Thanks, I’m Good!

May 4, 2021 § 29 Comments

By Morgan Baker

The world is slowly opening, and we’re all trying to figure out what’s safe to do. I’ve started seeing notices and ads announcing writing retreats coming up in different locales – Italy, Florida, Cuba and Newfoundland – and notices about residencies to which a writer can apply to work in solitude and join others for meals.

I, for one, am not going to a movie theater any time soon, let alone any residencies, retreats or workshops in far-off lands. I have always looked at those writing havens with envy. I live outside of Boston and fantasize about warmer climates where I could write and converse with other writers. But, I can’t afford them, nor could I really leave my teaching job to go write in Costa Rica. But while we were all locked in our houses and everyone took to the internet,  this pandemic gave me a writing community – something I’ve never really had, and I’ve been at this work for a while. I am not a big self-promoter and I’m not particularly good at inserting myself in others’ lives.

Not only did I zoom with my stepfather and my coffee group in the past twelve months, I have taken more writing classes and gone to more workshops and seminars than ever before. I took classes with instructors I had only dreamed of working with. I signed on to the Writers’ Bridge “platform chat” and every two weeks listened to what Allison K Williams and Ashleigh Renard had to share with the writers there – more than 200 of us – about social media, getting blurbs for your book, how to be a good literary citizen, and how to write effective social posts. I am in a bi-monthly Zoom workshop with a teacher I’ve worked with in asynchronous classes, but I’d never seen her face. She’d had in-person workshops in the Pacific Northwest or Hawaii, to which I could not go. Now I discuss my writing projects with her and a few other writers in kitchens and home offices. We have become friends and critical readers.

I have learned from a literary agent’s seminar to concentrate on one of my writing projects. I worked on a piece about my pandemic quilting with a teacher in New York City, and placed the essay later. I wrote yet another piece comparing quilting to writing that also found a home, here. In yet another workshop, I was encouraged to write with humor. So far I’ve failed at that.

I met more writers through Instagram and workshops. I don’t know any of them in “real” life, but I am connected to them through their writing, and their books have illuminated new stories and deepened my understanding of the world.

I joined Facebook groups, where I stalk and read, but rarely post. I created a mini writing group that meets every three weeks. We live in Massachusetts, Ohio and Montreal. I joined another group that meets most Fridays as a drop-in session. In January I closed the door to my home office keeping my husband, daughter and dog out so I could focus, committing myself to a virtual retreat all day for 5 days. It was so successful, I’ve signed up for another one. While we weren’t all lounging on a Costa Rican patio, we were in each others’ homes. One writer’s background was a pile of packing boxes, others sat in bedrooms and kitchens. Some had home offices that looked tidier than mine. These “visits” are probably the closest I’ll get to sitting in a warm climate, staring at a view of mountains or the sea.

Before the pandemic, I offered private writing workshops in my house, in addition to my college teaching. I engaged with the writers who drank tea and discussed their work at my dining room table where my dog came to say hi every meeting. Then the world stopped, and I moved my workshops from my table to my Zoom account. I’ve had participants from California, Rhode Island and Cambodia. I will continue these even when we’re all back to hugging one another.

While the world shrank and slowed down, I’ve been busier than ever with my writing. I’m in my sunny yellow home office all the time. I’m either teaching my college classes, writing, editing for the web magazine I work for, or connecting with other writers.

I hate the pandemic, don’t get me wrong. My father-in-law died from Covid, I don’t see my friends, and I haven’t seen my father in over a year. Recently, I was able to hug my stepfather. He and his partner have been holed up in their home, going for lots of walks, playing the recorder, and futzing on the computer, but isolated. Now all vaccinated, we sat at their dining room table for dinner and talked. It felt so right and so weird.

I’m glad the CDC has said I don’t have to wear a mask all the time, but I probably will until I can trust that those unvaccinated are still wearing theirs. But when writers start drifting away from their computers to fly to glamorous in-person retreats, I will wish them well – and wave them on from the ground.

_______________________________________

Morgan Baker teaches at Emerson College where she was honored with the Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is also the Managing Editor of The Bucket. Her work can be found at The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under The Gum Tree, Expression, among other publications.  She is working on a memoir about her empty nest.

Use Your Words (and Everyone Else’s)

April 13, 2021 § 5 Comments

Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe you give each other live feedback, maybe you write it down, maybe both. And maybe, each time you look over your marked-up pages, you think:

Well…Bob certainly added a lot of commas…

Wow…Jane left like 30 comments. Now I feel bad I only gave her 4…

Cindy, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means…

“Enjoyed reading”? I made thoughtful comments on every one of your pages and I get back “Enjoyed reading”?!?!?

And yet, a writing group is still a great place for critique without spending a fortune on professional editing or getting an(other) MFA. How can you make your group effective for each writer?

Set clear ground rules.

Ask writers what they need.

Deliberately apply not only the feedback you got, but the feedback you gave.

Ground rules: Ever spent 22 minutes on one person’s pages and 7 on another’s? Ever needed big-picture feedback but got proofreading? Establish specifically what the group is going to do. If you have a defined leader, ask them for guidelines (they might feel weird about imposing rules unless you ask). If your group is egalitarian, bring it up yourself: “Hey, can we set a timer to give each person about the same amount?”

Set expectations for the amount and type of feedback. Frustrated with the number of comments you’re getting versus those you’re receiving? Ask! “Hey, am I overdoing it? I’m leaving 15-20 comments on y’all’s work, and I’m getting back 2-3. Is my feedback overwhelming or should I be asking you all for more?” Then you’ll know—do you need to ease off, are they slacking/unaware, or do you need a more rigorous group?

Ask what they need: For live feedback, you could choose the Liz Lerman critical response model, in which you ask, “Do you want to hear a thought on X?” The artist responds that yes, they do, or sorry, no, they aren’t working on that right now.

Control your own feedback by asking for what you need. Write at the top of your submitted pages, or say when it’s your turn, “Today I need to hear whether the sequence of events makes sense, and where I could add more tension. Please don’t bother to proofread or fix punctuation—I’m not at that stage.”

If you’re new to a group, try for at least one comment every other page, plus 3-5 sentences of your overall impressions at the end. Comment on what’s working as well as what isn’t. Be specific, and ask questions rather than dictating answers:

I’m getting that she’s a spy, from the radio she’s carrying, but then she says she’s just a mom—is that her cover?

Should we think he’s a jerk from stealing the bike? How much time will we spend with him in the rest of the book?

Then see what everyone else gives you and calibrate accordingly, or follow the example of the writer you think gives the most helpful feedback.

Particularly if you’re in a group of writers widely different in experience or skill, feedback often says more about the giver than the words. Pay attention to what each person says about everyone else’s work. If you think they’re off-base about another writer’s pages, take their advice with a grain of salt. If you find yourself agreeing with Janet that yeah, Sally’s pages lack a clear dramatic action, take Janet’s feedback more seriously on your own work.

Apply the feedback: Write down the verbal feedback and read your marked-up pages. If you agree and feel excited, get in there and revise. If you’re confused or unhappy, take a couple days, then go back and see what your critics agreed on. Chances are those places are worth your attention. But don’t just use the feedback you got—apply the feedback you gave, too!

Spotting problems in someone else’s writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like someone walking into the emergency room with a pickaxe in their skull. You don’t need to put them in the X-ray machine to spot the problem. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our pages and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.

Approach it like an assignment:

This seems like backstory—we know they’re hiking, when does something happen?

I count 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.

Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.

Pick one of the problems you critiqued and look for it in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Does a word or sentence pattern stick out?

Writing groups can be frustrating, maddening, time-consuming…and incredibly helpful. For free. So grab your writing buddies and use your words. You’ll all be better writers for it.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She loves her writing group. You could meet your future writing buddies at the Rebirth Your Writing: Craft & Publishing Intensive May 16-20, as well as improving your platform, learning to query, and polishing your writing skills. For essayists, memoirists and novelists!

The 21st-Century Book Launch

April 8, 2021 § 12 Comments

Dinty W. Moore’s latest book To Hell with It Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno dropped early. Happy readers posted selfies with their Amazon-shipped copies before Dinty himself got a published book. Other writers report Amazon jumping the gun, too. Conversely, the wrenchingly beautiful Inside Passage has pushed back a month. My own publication date for Seven Drafts moved from May to September (sorry but thanks for sticking with me, preorders!).

It doesn’t matter.

The one-month launch is over.

A book launch was once a big, splashy thing. Champagne at a fancy restaurant, or dubious cheese cubes and box wine at a bookstore, your publicist flying in, a party. Then you’d wait eagerly for reviews, write a few supporting pieces, do some interviews, and 30 days later, you were done. Either your book had flown or it had flopped.

Now, the process of a book leaving the nest is much more drawn out. There’s the happy Facebook status when you finish the manuscript, start querying, land an agent, land a publisher, or decide to self-publish. The Goodreads cover reveal. The Instagram Reel of unboxing the first copies. Tweeting nice reviews. With social media, authors have much more control over pre- and post-launch publicity (if they want it). Now, after publication, a “book launch” lasts six months. Or a year. Or two or three years, with a revival when something newsworthy and connected to your book happens in year four.

What’s changed? The pandemic was the last straw, but the haystack had been building since the early 2000s. The sheer number of books published has vastly increased. Sure, Hemingway never tweeted. But in 1926, The Sun Also Rises joined about 23,000 new titles. In 2018, there were over a million new books in the USA alone. More books are self-published, alone or through a “hybrid” publishing services company, and their authors must self-promote or hire a publicist. And unlike a traditional publisher’s marketing department, a hired publicist doesn’t quit when the next book comes out…she keeps going as long as the checks keep rolling in.

The good news is, you don’t have to cram all that publication-related stress into the 3 months before and the 1 month after publication. The bad news is that authors end up doing a lot of the launching themselves, into a much busier, more crowded market. But authors also have more outlets—many costing only your time—to get the message out.

What does the 21st-century book launch include?

  • A mailing list. Start collecting emails now. Being invited into the inbox is the absolute best way to connect with readers (after meeting them in person, when we can again).
  • A giant spreadsheet to track launch activities. As my own primary publicist, I’m listing what I’d like to do on each platform where I’m active, and roughly when. Checking off a list is easier than guessing. (I’m making this spreadsheet available next week, btw, please do sign up for my mailing list if you want a copy!)
  • Blurbs. Lots of them. They don’t have to be famous writers—many readers don’t even know who the literati are. Learn to make a quote card and sprinkle good quotes from beta readers and reviews, as well as traditional requested blurbs, across your own social media. Those authors you hope will blurb? Start gently promoting their work through your social network months before hitting them up.
  • Long-term, low-key social media. You’re less likely to wear out your audience by posting about your book weekly for a year, in context with other news, rather than blasting ads for a month while everyone mutes you on Twitter. Post more about your topic than your book. Be a PSA instead of a commercial.
  • Literary citizenship. You’re going to want online reviews, so make sure you’ve reviewed all your friends’ books before asking them to review you back.
  • If your book launched more than a few months ago, look for something newsworthy to cue renewed sales. Write a hot essay. Get a writer friend to pitch an interview with you. Emphasize how your book intersects with a right-now topic. Supermoms. Actively processing past trauma. Female rage.

Yes, a lot of this sounds transactional. It is transactional. Human nature is transactional. We feel more drive to do favors for people who have done favors for us. Think of it as deposits into the Bank of Goodwill. You may not end up withdrawing the exact same stuff you put in, but when you contribute to a community, the members are more likely to support you, whether you supported them individually or not.

Having a book is like having a baby. Interest peaks right before the big release, but your precious little damp lump also gets 4-5 more months before your cooing starts boring the crap out of your friends. Pick the platforms you actually like—publishing essays, or writing newsletters, or public speaking, if you’re not into social media—and gently participate by supporting other authors’ creations, before, during and after launching your own bundle of literary joy.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching seminars in how to get an agent, joyful platform building, and intriguing first pages as part of Rebirth Your Writing: Publishing and Craft, a 5-day writing intensive May 16-20.

Social Media Doesn’t Sell Books

April 1, 2021 § 5 Comments

Many authors have numbers questions:

Will an agent even look at my query if I have less than 10K on Instagram?
How many Twitter followers do I need before writing my proposal?
Does an essay with 5600 hits count as “viral”?
 
Gentle Readers, I have answers:
 
Yes.
0.
No. (More on this in a minute)
 
Social media doesn’t sell books—that we know of. Nobody walks into Barnes & Noble saying, “I saw this book in a tweet!” Readers don’t tick “Found it on Instagram!” on their Amazon order. You can’t get that information from your publisher. Your publisher can’t get it, either. Mostly you won’t even know who sold the book. Are you an indie bookstore darling? Or were all your sales at Books-a-Million? If they bought through the same distributor, you won’t know.
 
Social media is not a lead magnet or a commercial. Social media is a delivery system, to communicate your ideas, topics, and point of view to your audience. To find out what your audience needs to know. And to reach beyond your own community to broaden your audience at only the cost of your time.
 
You don’t have to buy an ad.
You don’t need a degree.
You don’t even have to put on pants.
 
For authors, social media has four main purposes—but each of these can be done off social media, too.
 
Find your audience: Following discussions (helpfully corralled into subjects by hashtag) shows you exactly who’s interested in what you’re writing about. It’s not weird if you become online acquaintances and spontaneously participate in their conversation. They can directly respond to your joke, question, micro-essay or impassioned political or emotional point, and you can block them if you don’t like what they have to say.
 
Offline, these spontaneous discussions happen at writing and subject-focused conferences, community meetings, and on newspaper editorial pages.
 
Follow “comp authors”: Just as you might list “comparative titles” in a nonfiction book proposal to show the market for your own, you can seek out those authors online. Watch the conversations happening on their social media. Engage with their followers, and some of them (gradually) become your followers, too.
 
Offline, once we can travel again, attend bookstore events and talks on college campuses (sign up for their newsletters!). There, you can meet other audience members, maybe exchange cards to let them know when you publish.
 
Explore new communities: Watching what else your followers talk about, and where else they hang out online, leads to discovering events, classes, and forums. Reddit has thousands of interest-based forums; there’s probably one for your ideal readers. (There’s a 38K-member subReddit focused entirely on eating oranges while showering, so your topic is probably there, too.) Becoming part of a community now means you can tell them about your book in six months.
 
Offline, once it’s safe, Meetup is a great source for interest-based communities. There are likely business clubs, religious organizations, or volunteer groups meeting around your topic.
 
Write better: Sure, an MFA is great, but have you made a joke land on Twitter? Or written a six-part essay on Instagram? You’ve heard me bang this drum before: Social media is ideal to practice writing at the sentence level. Anchor your sentence beginnings and ends with concrete nouns and strong verbs. See what word combinations have punch. It’s low-stakes: there’s no “dislike” button.
 
Offline, sentence-level trial and error with immediate response is rare in workshops, but not impossible to find (let me know if you find it). Or get a professional line-edit on 5-10 pages, then apply that work to the rest of your manuscript.
 
(You may have noticed that when you’re not using social media, all four of these things cost more, take longer, and require more privilege to access.)
 
But I want to grow my following organically…I hear writers moan. They contemptuously dismiss social media as “fake” and “shallow.” But you’re not a spray-tanned influencer. You’re a writer. No-one is forcing you to partner with Starbucks and hawk Unicorn Frappucinos. No-one sternly insists you tweet twice a day.
 
If you want real connection online, be a real person. Join real communities. Listen to what they need. Because “going viral” isn’t 5600 clicks. Going viral is becoming a focus of discussion in the audience you want to reach.
 
 
I triple-dog dare you to read any of those and tell me they’re fake or shallow. Without social media, they would not have created as much serious, emotional and literary discussion as they did.
 
You can absolutely build your entire writing career on the beauty of your writing alone. If that’s your plan, prepare to spend hours, for years, improving your writing and thinking deep thoughts about what to write. It helps to have an MFA. It helps to have a mentor already well-positioned in the literary world. It helps to have started at 25.
 
You can also build a writing career on thoughtful, compelling writing that tells stories your audience desperately needs to hear. Stories you know they need, because you talked to them. As Sean Thomas Dougherty writes:
 
 
Why Bother?

Because right now there is   someone

Out there with

a wound               in the exact shape

of your words.

 

They’re telling you the shape of their wound, every day, on social media.

_____________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Join her and Dinty W. Moore for Rebirth Your Writing: A Publishing & Craft Intensive. It’s a five-day virtual retreat May 16-20. We’ll cover writing beautifully—and building platform.

Not a Memoir But a Mystery

March 9, 2021 § 7 Comments

One common challenge for first-time memoirists is the manuscript that reads like a case file: scene after scene shows the main antagonist as an out-and-out villain; the protagonist’s responses are all appropriate and justified, and the whole story is summed up with how bravely the narrator strode forth into the light.

These memoirs don’t work.

They may be well-written, even delightful at the sentence level. But in terms of the dramatic arc, there’s no mystery, nothing to draw the reader. We know whodunit from the very beginning, and the course of the book is watching them do it over and over again.

Often, the writer is unconscious that they’ve laid out facts in a row and slanted them towards their own hurt feelings. As an adult reflecting back, they have clarity. What happened to them was wrong. They need to express that on the page.

But if the situation was so wrong, why did the rest of the family go along with it? Why didn’t anyone arrest the priest, or kick the foster parents out of the system, or hospitalize the addicted child, or incarcerate the domestic abuser? For that matter, why did the villain of the memoir continue their behavior? Few people are truly “evil,” and fewer still wake up in the morning and think, “Better get going! I’ve got some oppressing to do today!” Somehow, the situation looked OK—or OK enough to ignore—from the outside. Maybe it even looked OK to the memoirist when they lived that trauma the first time through. Maybe it was thoroughly concealed, and that disguise is itself worth exploring.

Our stories are more powerful and more compelling when we write with the voice of innocence. Showing the actions that happened and allowing the reader to be judge and jury. Showing our own adult character’s faults. Showing our own child character’s situation, and how they perceived it at the time. Many of us have had the experience of realizing in adulthood, “Hey, nobody else’s family acted like that.” By showing your own acceptance of your family’s normal, rather than pointing up how strange or abusive or traumatic it was, you allow the reader to inhabit that moment of shock, too. Present the facts, as truly as you can determine, and let the reader decide what they add up to.

Tara Westover explains, in her notes for Educated, that she has included footnotes reflecting other family members’ memories when they differ from hers, because

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families. …Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir—trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.

How can you include in your writing more truth than you possess?

  • If it’s possible to do without hurting yourself, seek out the other characters of your story and ask them why they did what they did. Think of yourself as an investigative journalist, one who’s pretty sure what the final cut of the documentary is going to look like, but needs to make an honest effort to get the other side of the story.
  • After you’re finished with a second or third draft, consider sending relevant chapters to the people you depict on the page. If they aren’t approachable, perhaps someone close to them could take a look. Don’t ask if they like it. Ask, “Where does your memory differ from mine? What have I missed in this event? What details do you remember?”
  • Whether or not it’s possible to communicate with your antagonists, consider deeply why they may have done what they did. Villains have their own version of the story—one in which they are the hero. A man who’s spent his life building an empire is devastated when his son refuses to inherit. But the story is told from Luke Skywalker’s side, so Darth Vader is a villain and not a deeply unhappy father.

See if you can allow those who hurt you some small grace, and show on the page why they thought they were right, or why they couldn’t overcome their wrongs. If you can summon up compassion (and you’re not obligated to!) for your antagonists, you may well be able to write a deeper and more interesting book. It’s deeply challenging to set aside our own legitimate grievances and honestly open our minds to the possibility of another point of view, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt and reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why.

______________________
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching how to navigate the story of your own villains in a webinar this Wednesday: Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings. Register here.

Who Deserves the Truth?

March 2, 2021 § 26 Comments

Like this, but plummeting

When I was a circus aerialist, my act finished with a dramatic upside-down slide, dropping 16 feet head-downwards before catching in the aerial fabric, my skull inches from the ground. It was a crowd-pleaser, and it required more technique and timing than sheer strength, so it was a good trick for the end of a tiring show. The only problem was, the back of my knee was the “brakes.” Squeezing hard on the fabric with my upper calf kept me from concussion, but it also gave me rope-burn.

I did it anyway. It was the best trick I had, the one that made audiences clap and put money in the hat at the end of the show. The raw skin was usually worth it. But sometimes, when sticky humidity told me “this one’s gonna be bad,” I’d look at the audience and judge their enthusiasm, their involvement in the show so far, and think, Have they earned this? Do I want to give them this much?

I face the same challenge as a memoirist. When I break out a particularly intense story, or share deep vulnerability on the page, I go full out. But I temper my words in subsequent drafts, gauging how personal I want to be based on the readers I’m hoping for. That’s easy enough to do for an essay or an Instagram caption; I can start later in the story or end earlier, leave some details out, put some mitigating circumstances in. I have some control over how far the story goes, where I submit it, who will see it on which social media.

Adjusting memoir-pain tolerance is much harder for a book. The writing process lasts longer; the potential audience is bigger. Our relatives and friends may treat a book with more weight than a Facebook status.

I’ve had editorial clients ask, “Should I just make this a novel?”

Usually, no.

Novels need complete dramatic arcs, compelling characters, and an ability to fully embrace new scenes or plot elements. “What actually happened” isn’t always believable as fiction. The more gripping the story, the less it may resemble your story.

For novelists, the craft of writing is as important as the story itself. Sure, some average writing makes the bestseller lists, but usually because the story has powerfully hooked the public. Novels based on the author’s experience draw from life, but approach the subject from another point of view, or with a better ending, or happening to different people. Write your novel because you want to write a novel, not to hide from your own story.

Memoirs are elevated by truth. Readers can forgive an arc that doesn’t quite resolve when they’re thinking about the real-person protagonist. Decent-to-good writing becomes gripping when you’re telling the truth. Plenty of memoirists are also incredible writers. Plenty of memoirs-in-progress are not yet excellent writing. How much time do you want to spend “becoming a great writer” versus “becoming a good writer, learning about myself, and getting my story into the world”?

I’ve had clients ask, “Could I use a pen name?”

Usually, no.

Memoirs sell on topic and name recognition. The less recognizable you are, the more powerful your topic must be. If you’re writing about your week in Bin Laden’s bunker, or your high-class Manhattan escort days, or your Secret Service career, sure, use a pen name (and lawyer up!). But if you’re trying to avoid social fallout, don’t bother. You’d have to start establishing that fake person’s publication record and online presence now, and your family is going to find out eventually anyway. Why sacrifice your existing network to temporarily hide, while also sabotaging your ability to sell your own book?

Put the effort of re-visioning your life as fiction into cultivating positive relationships with your readers and your fellow writers. Skip building a fake person to promote this bookinstead, build your own courage and your support network. Part of publishing memoir is standing up for your own story. If you’re not ready to share it as yourself, you probably aren’t ready to share it at all. Keep writing and publish later.

Writing good memoir hurts, because good memoir pokes old wounds. Publishing memoir means knowing ahead of time you’re going to inflict pain on yourself, and choosing to share your story anyway. The pain becomes a badge of power, a sign that silence doesn’t control your story. That you’re strong enough to tell. You trust your readers to listen. You give readers hope, you’re not the only one this happened to—one day, you’ll be strong enough to tell your story, too.

When I did my rope-burn aerial trick, sometimes the audience had earned it with their laughter and applause. Sometimes they hadn’t, and I ended with something less dramatic but without physical pain. But more times than not, I did the trick for me. Because I could. After about 4 years, the back of my leg scarred over. No more rope burn. I’d leaned into the pain so many times it couldn’t hurt me anymore.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Wondering how much pain your memoir can take? Register now for Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings March 10 at 1PM Eastern (recording available).

Keep Your Writing Friends Close But Your Comp Authors Closer

February 11, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Ashleigh Renard

Last week “harsh writing advice” was trending on Twitter, spurred on by one bonehead tweet that declared that our writing friends are our competition. Well, if we think the prize in this game is winning the attention of a top agent or editor, maybe the bonehead is right.

But if our perspective expands just a tad, we may remember that all of us in publishing—writers, editors, agents, and booksellers—are tremendously outnumbered by the ACTUAL READERS. Our ability to connect with readers is what agents and editors are talking about whenever they mention “platform.” And it is those dear readers who are the most often forgotten about until we have something to sell them.

Here’s how to change that and put readers at the center of your daily writing practice.

Just as writers diligently research comparative titles for queries and proposals, we need to search out “comp authors” on social media. Comp authors are the established, published writers in our genre, who have a large following and engage regularly on their chosen platforms. Followed strategically, their social media accounts can help us determine where our potential readers hang out and what they already consume with vigor.

To determine your comp authors:

  1. If you could switch accounts with any writer in the world today, who would it be? Who shows up online in a manner that appeals to you?
  2. Choose someone you like. This should not be a hate-follow. You will be studying what they do well and why readers flock to them. Liking their work will help you get the most out of this practice.
  3. Find common themes with your own writing in their books and their presence on social media—grief, body positivity, travel, parenthood, nutrition, chronic illness, humor, etc—but your stories do not need to be identical, because of course they can’t be.

What to do with your comp authors:

  1. Turn notifications on for 3-5 accounts on your favorite platform(s).
  2. Pay attention—what do readers react to quickly and exuberantly? Are they following the account for encouragement, commiseration, or to be entertained? What types of posts inspire the most interaction? Does your target reader enjoy a quick punchline or an Instagram mini-essay. Do they want to laugh or want to cry?
  3. Engage by joining the discussion in the comments. When you feel you have something witty and supportive to add to the conversation, do. Comment and respond to comments from others. You’re not there to steal the show. You are there to give genuine support to the community your comp author has already assembled. Add value by listening, offering assistance, and being your real self.
  4. If you have chosen accurate comp authors and are really paying attention it won’t take long before you start to notice gaps in what the writer is offering, gaps you can fill with your unique experience. What holes do you notice in the support the comp writer is giving the readers? How are you positioned to fill these holes and meet these needs with the differences between you and the comp author? This is where you get ideas for your own social media content. Actively noticing the gaps in what the authors already in your genre talk about can even help you narrow the focus of your memoir, prescriptive nonfiction project, or the way you will present yourself as a novelist.
  5. Support the author and practice your literary citizenship. When you buy the author’s new book (because you actually like their writing, remember?) buy an extra copy and hold a giveaway on your Instagram or in your newsletter. On Instagram, tag the author, the editor, the imprint, and their agent. Share to your Story and tag them there, too.
  6. YOU ARE NOT AIMING TO BE FOLLOWED BACK BY THE WRITER. Please remember this is not the goal. The purpose is to focus your online offerings to become a creator who followers of your comp author would recommend to their friends as another person who offers great advice/encouragement/education online.

One pertinent and caring comment from me on an Elizabeth Gilbert post led to Liz responding for a brief conversation in the comments, 1600 new visitors to my Instagram account and 150 new followers, many of whom became beta readers for my memoir. Positioning yourself as a writer who should be read by readers who love your comp accounts comes earlier and is more in your control than whether your title will be shelved next to your comp author at a bookstore or whether you’ll be put on a panel together at a literary festival.

Keep your writing friends close. Share editing and submissions advice and support. But remember we are all of more value to each other when we prioritize growing our own readerships. Newsletter swaps, giveaways, and shared book events all have a wider reach when we actively seek out our audience, and have a finger on the pulse of what they love.

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Ashleigh Renard’s debut book SWING – A Memoir of Doing it All will be available May 2021. Follow her on Instagram for daily reflections and advice for writers, monogamists and moms.

Need more ways to connect with readers without sacrificing your writing time on social media? Join Ashleigh Renard and Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams for Reach Your Readers, Keep Your Soul: 8 Weeks to Author Platform.

Mailing List Love

February 4, 2021 § 8 Comments

We’ve all heard it.

You need a mailing list.

Your mailing list is your most powerful way to reach your readers.

Agents and publishers want you to have a mailing list.

And it’s true. A mailing list is your most powerful way to stay connected to your future readers. Being invited into someone’s inbox is far more intimate than connecting on social media. Plus, most people see under 10% of everything posted in their social feeds. But most people read about 95% of their email.

Which leads to a conundrum, as a writer asked me recently on Twitter: “How, exactly, am I supposed to get all those addresses?”

Start simple.

When a writer hands you their card at a conference, they are inviting you to stay in touch. Add those emails.

Look through your address book. Any family member or friend who has expressed interest in your writing (and from whom you’re not actively hiding your memoir).

That workshop attendee list. The addresses a literary magazine fails to bcc on their email. Most of them won’t opt in for regular news, but keep their information. When the time comes, one email announcing your book launch is OK!

Broaden your reach. Make sure there’s a prominent mailing list sign up form on your website. Put the link to sign up in your regular email signature (it’s in Mail>Preferences). Each time you contact your list, crosspost a teaser to social media. More of your followers will read, and some will sign up.

You don’t need a lot of mailing list infrastructure. A way to sign up. A place to track information, like a spreadsheet or an app like Substack, Mailchimp, Tiny Letter, Convertkit, or Flodesk. Automate your subscribe/unsubscribe process—legally, it must easy to unsubscribe, and letting a machine take care of that avoids hurting your feelings. Don’t bother to check your subscriber numbers more than every other month, unless you’re actively growing your list with a campaign and need to see if it’s working on a daily or weekly basis.

How often should you be in touch? No more than weekly; ideally no less than monthly. However, most of us have actual writing to do. I personally send my newsletter every 4 to 6 months (whoops!), but the point of regularity is so people remember who you are. I do enough social media that much of my audience remembers me, but I still start each newsletter with “Hey I know you haven’t heard for me in a while…”

And what, exactly, are you writing to all these people? The same things you tell your friends about your writing. How your process is going. What inspired you today. Something cool you read and think they’d like to read, too. Entertain them, enlighten them, be of service. You’re not selling your content, you’re buying their attention.

Most newsletters focus either on service or story. Service newsletters curate information, like Erika Dreifus’ The Practicing Writer, give insider tips, like Kate McKean’s Agents and Books, or consolidate industry news, like Jane Friedman’s paid offering, The Hot Sheet. Story newsletters showcase your actual writing. Emerging writer Casey Mulligan Walsh sends part of her monthly blog to her mailing list (scroll allllllll the way down). Some people will click through and read the whole thing, but Casey’s not overloading their inbox with a giant block of text. I tend to write travel stories or quirky slice-of-life moments. Thriller writer Jessica Jarlvi combines personal moments with writing inspiration.

Nobody wants to be your “customer”; they want to be your friend. As you build your author platform—or as I like to think of it, the bridge connecting you and your readers to each other—readers opting in and choosing to see you in their inbox are placing you among their friends. Your mailing list is a gentle way to keep in touch, not necessarily with the people who’ll rush out and buy your book instantly upon release, but with those who will spread that news to their friends, endorsing you and evangelizing for your work. That warm, supportive feeling you have towards the authors in your inbox, sharing their work and their lives? That’s how your mailing list readers are going to feel about you.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Ready to start building your personal author platform? Join me and Ashleigh Renard for Reach Your Readers Keep Your Soul: 8 Weeks to Author Platform. You’ll learn better social media skills, improve your pitching and submissions, explore public speaking, write PR, discover how to reach your readers consistently, write better, and build an audience that helps you sell your book. Weekly classes and small-group coaching start March 1.

Nobody Gets What They’re Worth

January 14, 2021 § 10 Comments

Emrys Fleet, ratcatcher and master negotiator

Years ago, I sat backstage at a Renaissance Festival, hot and sweaty after eating fire in the Florida sun. (What really sucks? Fire is harder to see in bright light, so I’d endangered my life to look less impressive than usual.) My partner and I were talking contracts with a more experienced performer (this guy). We were going to ask for more money. I said doubtfully, “I know the management is pretty cheap, but I think we’re worth it?”

Our wiser friend replied, “Nobody gets what they’re worth. You get what you negotiate.”

That saying stuck with me. Bad deals come from bad negotiation—not one’s inherent worth. Good deals reflect the writer and their agent’s negotiating skills as much as the quality of the book. (Good writing gets you in the door; good deals come from negotiation).

For writers, negotiating with a publisher can feel like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But a publishing contract isn’t a gift, it’s a deal. Professional, courteous negotiation doesn’t upset legitimate businesspeople. Anyone getting shirty when you ask for explanations or push back on terms is waving a huge red flag. Trust is for your mother. (Or not, as per many memoirs.)

When you receive your publishing contract, what can you (or your agent) negotiate?

Royalties. Standard royalties are 10-15%. Especially if your advance is smaller, you may be able to do better, perhaps as much as 25% on print books. Even if they won’t shift on print, you could get a higher percentage on ebooks. The standard is 25%, but I’ve seen authors get as much as 50%.

Royalties can also include an “escalator” clause: sell more books, get more money. I arranged an escalator clause for one of the first plays I published: my royalties jumped 5% every 5000 copies sold, topping out at 25%. When I signed, it was an ambitious dream. Twenty years later, the play is still in print.

Subsidiary Rights. Publishers hope to buy worldwide rights, then sell your book to foreign publishers, for which you get royalties. But if your agent sells those rights (or you do, but that’s a longer shot), you’ll deal directly with the overseas publisher and keep a chunk of middleman money. If your publisher retains foreign rights, negotiate for an expiration date. If they have bigger-deal books to focus on and yours goes unsold, you’ll want those rights back for when the opportunity arises to sell them yourself.

You may not be able to keep your audio rights, but you could get the right to audition or even a guaranteed right to be the narrator. (Many authors are terrible narrators; choose wisely!) Audio books could also be at higher royalties than print.

Film rights should always be retained (you never know!). All rights “not named” should be reserved for you, and that’s worth fighting for. Maybe your book will never be a calendar…but it might.

Marketing. In these days of mostly author-driven publicity, it’s more important than ever to get free print and electronic copies. Find out if the publisher uses NetGalley for bloggers, reviewers and the media—can you give your PR list? If you speak at conferences or events, how many copies can you buy for resale, and at what price? First-time authors are unlikely to get cover approval, but you can ask for input.

Process. How long does the publisher have for editorial feedback? What are your deadlines? When will you do last-minute corrections, and will they bill you past a certain number of errors?

Options. Do they have first dibs on the next book you write? If there’s a non-compete clause, negotiate to cover only books “substantially similar and directly competitive,” or you might find yourself unable to sell your next book to another publisher or even self-publish.

Most contracts have flexibility, and it’s always worth negotiating for a better deal. All contracts have unchangeable language about definitions and jurisdiction, but boilerplate rights and financial terms are often sweeping. Like pricing your house 30% above market: maybe someone will pull up with a dump truck full of cash, or maybe you’ll negotiate. Most clauses about money, editing, the actual publishing process, marketing and timelines can be tweaked, or at the very least, fully explained.

If you’re working with a hybrid press, that’s not a publishing deal. You are purchasing a package of services. No matter what they tell you, the costs of publishing your book and their expected minimum profit come from your money. An offer of 50% “royalties” means “As you work to sell your book, we will claim an additional half of your profits.” Make sure your contract specifies what they provide in return. Keep all subsidiary rights. They aren’t going to sell them for you, and if a movie deal drops in your lap, well, you already paid the publisher.

If you’re un-agented, you can negotiate yourself, hire a literary-specific attorney, or take advantage of the Author’s Guild’s legal review services for members (a total bargain! Join here). But you’re allowed to negotiate. You’re not rude or pushy or showing ignorance by asking for an explanation, doing some research and/or talking to your agent, and proposing a better deal. Even after negotiation, you may not get what you’re worth.

Then again? You might get more.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her Friday January 22nd for This Is the Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal Setting for Your 2021 Writing Life in which she will not once say “write every day.”

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