When The Publisher Calls You

May 29, 2018 § 12 Comments

Hold on a sec, I got some thoughts about your memoir

You open your email, and O frabjous day! A publisher has come calling! They’ve seen your work in a literary magazine and wonder if you have a chapbook, or would like to be in their anthology.  Or you didn’t win a contest, but your work “shows merit” and “deserves to be published.” Maybe you wanted a faster process than querying agents, or figured your work better suited a small press, so you cast out to a few publishers, and one has bitten.

You read a little further. This publishing house “considers work for both traditional and hybrid publishing.” If your book is seen as better suited to a hybrid deal—perhaps due to “the difficulty in placing the books of new or untried authors, as well as the general increased competition in publishing today”—the publisher feels “that it may be necessary to ask for a contribution from you.”

Maybe it’s even right up front: We’re a hybrid press. Our package costs $XXXX, and you can add on additional services at $XXX, $XXXX or $XXXXX.

The email is reassuring. Someone has recognized the quality of your work. After all the hype about “platform,” someone wants your book based on your writing. You don’t have to hit 10,000 followers or make mailing-list spreadsheets. It’s a relief.

But most of the time, it’s not true.

Not (technically) a scam or a fraud. But a well-designed system to separate hopeful authors from hard-earned dollars, waste their time and leave them with unsold, often un-edited and poorly-designed books.

Remember the old saw about things that seem too good to be true? That maxim goes hand-in-hand with another cliche: You can’t cheat an honest man. You can only sell a five-dollar diamond ring to someone who thinks he’s ripping you off.

Writers who seek hybrid publishing “deals” aren’t grifters. But they are to some extent sidestepping the work of getting published. Submitting and pitching to small magazines, medium journals and mass media. Blogging/newsletter-ing to build their core audience. Going to readings and events, collecting names and emails. Being a literary citizen. We’re all looking for a lucky break, and lightning may well strike, but it usually strikes while we’re in the middle of the process. The process that sets us up to be able to sell books once we do get that publishing deal.

Most authors who pay to publish end up doing the real work anyway. Pounding the pavement to get their book in a few stores. Emailing the target audience (key demographic: “everyone I know who has ever read a book”). They’ll do that work with a larger cash investment than traditional publishing and far less potential monetary reward than self-publishing. Their copyright may end up in the publisher’s hands—the publisher who may also now own all their subsidiary rights.

Remember that part about “the process that sets us up to be able to sell books”? Memoir, creative nonfiction and self-help are hard to sell without “platform.”  Basically, the number of people who will buy your book or spread the word about it. Platform can be:

  • social media followers (10,000+ real followers who engage with your posts)
  • a speaking career (at major events where books can be sold)
  • group membership (i.e., a nationwide service club or large religious organization; a class of people like “patients suffering this disorder”)
  • writing articles or essays about the book’s subject matter, and publishing them in medium-to-major mass media or significant literary journals
  • a public career like radio show host or TV presenter

Without platform, a traditional publisher doesn’t want to buy the book because they can’t sell the book. It’s also hard to self-publish without enough people to sell the book to. Unfortunately, so many books come out each year that, without a built-in audience, it’s rare for readers to discover and purchase any single book. Novelists still market hard, but for some there’s an existing base of blogs, reviewers, and genre fans to help the book get momentum and word-of-mouth. Nonfiction books by non-famous people are usually not newsworthy, so the writer needs an existing audience who will spread the word and buy the book themselves.

One of the things you can do to start momentum for your work is to revise sections of the book as possible magazine or newspaper articles, and seek publication in mass media. You can also turn chapters into self-contained essays to submit to journals. Whether you end up with a traditional publisher or a self-supported plan, getting your work out there will help future sales, and help you gauge your audience. Memoirists who publish a “hot essay” (the legendary venue is Modern Love, but there are plenty more places) often get offers from traditional publishers, or have agents seek them out.

Legitimate publishers have writers beating down their doors. Unless a writer recently did something very newsworthy, made a big splash with an essay, or regularly speaks at large events, publishers don’t come to us. We go to them. Self-publishing is totally legit, but you can coordinate it yourself, and publish with Createspace, Lulu, Smashwords and/or Ingram. That’s more work, but usually costs less, and you make all the money and keep all the rights.

Sometimes a true hybrid publishing deal can be the right choice for some authors. On Thursday, we’ll talk about what a good hybrid deal looks like, why you might want one, and questions to ask the publisher.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’s building her platform with this charming mostly-monthly newsletter—rack up some literary karma by subscribing. 

 

 

 

 

 

Your Writing or Your Life

May 15, 2018 § 48 Comments

Business card drawing of skyscrapers by Hugh MacLeod, saying "Before I die I will leave a body of work behind. It will cost me everything."

Business-card drawing by Hugh MacLeod of Gaping Void

I spent two years writing an anonymous sex blog five days a week. I told people daily blogging was great for a writer, that if I missed a day, readers emailed ‘are you OK?’. It was the most consistently I have ever written in my life. It was 100% truth all the time, scorched-earth truth, and by the end of two years I wasn’t sure if I was doing risky, stupid things to have something to write about, or if I was writing this material as an excuse to do risky, stupid things. Either way I was compelled.

I survived. My marriage did not. My long-term affair didn’t, either. I quit blogging and started a memoir. I thought the moments of risk and danger and sheer, unadulterated crazy would make a great memoir, and the friend-writers I entrusted with my secrets believed that, too.

An agent shopped the book for a year. Editors liked the voice but hated the story or vice versa. I wondered if the agent wasn’t powerful enough to sell the book. At a conference, a noted writer was intrigued by my subject matter and asked to see the manuscript, so I thought I’d pick a couple pages for reading night.

I flipped through.

Boring.

Porn.

Boring.

Horrible.

The book had been written in a haze of untreated depression and grey sadness soaked every page. No wonder it never sold. It sucked. Even I didn’t want to read it ever again. I definitely didn’t want to waste my “I’ll read your manuscript” favor on it.

In 2013, I was performing a one-woman show in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The show had been a hit ten years before—now I was giving away tickets to homeless people to get butts in seats. I drove home after shows thinking, Why not just twitch the wheel and go right off that bridge? and That tree looks solid enough.

I told my then-boyfriend I was pretty sure I was depressed, I hadn’t been to therapy in a few years, and I thought I should see a doctor.

He said, “I guess I’ll have to read online about it. When people say they’re ‘depressed’ I always think, Come on, pull your socks up!”

I said, “I am the world’s champion sock puller-upper and this is more than I can handle.”

It had taken fifteen years to (grudgingly, desperately) decide my creativity wasn’t worth my life, because I was more afraid of pills than I was of depression. More afraid I’d “flatten out” my feelings, be unable to access them on the page, than I was of my own death.

I’ve heard other people say that, too. What if I lose my highs? What if I can’t feel anything anymore? What if I medicate the art right out of myself? In a Facebook group, someone asks for a friend—anti-depressants have sapped her ability to write. Before I can formulate an answer that’s direct but kind, a qualified nurse responds: if so, it’s the wrong medication. Another writer chimes in: there’s probably a barrier that isn’t the pills, and that’s worth examining with a writing coach or in therapy.

I got lucky. Wellbutrin was the right pill and it worked within a couple of weeks. I still cried at cute online videos. I still pulsed with joy at a student’s achievement, still wanted to have sex. I still wrote, still found scorched-earth truth. What changed was the edge of sorrow; the greasy black water of dread receded. Sadness was sadness instead of no-one will ever love you you are not worth loving. Anger was mental frustration and pain instead of my screaming, out-of-control body pulsing with fury.

I will probably take medication the rest of my life. After moving to a permanently sunny climate and marrying a man I adore, my career on track and writing going well, I tried tapering off. But fewer pills meant bursts of irrational rage, the dread licking at my feet again. My doctor asked, “Would you tell a diabetic they have a good life so it’s time to quit insulin?”

She’s right.

Depression and bipolar disorders poison us, make us think we can’t do anything and we have to do it all alone. That overdramatic nights and grey, dull days are survivable, other people have real problems. That medication is for the weak—mental illness should be overcome by force of will.

I owe it to my work to take my pills. I can’t speak for anyone else. The type of medication make a difference, and many people try several to find one that works. A supportive doctor makes a difference. Insurance and the accompanying peace of mind make a difference.

My mental health supports both my writing and the ability to share and sell my work. After being self-revelatory for years as a blogger and performer, I can tell my experience without embarrassment. This is not true for everyone. I’ve seen the shame barrier stop people from seeking out a doctor, or shopping around if the first doctor is unsupportive.

But if you’re on the edge of the dock with the dread licking your toes, take an inventory. How is this feeling helping your work? How is it hurting? If it’s been with you more than a year, positive thinking hasn’t fixed it. It might be time to try something else. Maybe it’s not a wall to break through but a burden to put down.

Maybe you can have your creativity and your life.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll teach turning your personal life into a memoir people actually want to read at the Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey (NYC-area) June 10th.

 

Slow Flash

May 1, 2018 § 14 Comments

By Melissa Ballard

“When will you write something about me?”

“Mom, you know I only write about dead people.”

End of conversation.

But the truth was, I’d already started more drafts about Mom than I could count.

As she began to have health problems, needed surgery, and finally had to move from her home of nearly forty years, those drafts got longer and became more numerous.

In October of 2013, Mom died. I continued to write. I revised, blended, made maps of the structure of some of the older essays, tore up the maps, wrote a series of paragraphs based on images. Nothing worked.

Eventually, it all went into my “dormant” file.

*

This is as good a time as any to disclose that I have a bursting file drawer devoted to typed and hand-written drafts, which I have tried in vain to organize. Recently, in an attempt not to waste paper, I’ve made a conscious effort to do less printing. I now have an unknown number of drafts in various locations on my computer and on a flash drive, which appears to be incompatible with my new laptop. Some, I think, are also in The Cloud, but I’m not sure how that happened, nor do I know how to access them.

*

In February of 2017, I took an online class with Penny Guisinger, “Writing Flash Creative Nonfiction.” Without referring to any of my previous drafts, I wrote a short essay about my relationship with my mom. At Penny’s suggestion, I worked on the ending. After a few more people read it, I made final revisions, and sent it to Full Grown People, where Jennifer Niesslein accepted it.

At least eight years in the making, a plethora of drafts, and a final word count somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 words—a flash essay, by most definitions.

*

In 2009, I was diagnosed with the fun-sounding GAD. It’s true that, if you add an “l” you have “glad.” But it’s short for “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” I began to write about anxiety and ended up with an unruly draft that included my great-grandmother, German cursing, and a metaphor about my washing machine. After many attempts it, too, found its way to the “dormant” drawer.

In 2013, I attended a Summer Writing Workshop at Kenyon College, where I took a creative nonfiction class with Dinty W. Moore. I arrived a day late, courtesy of GAD. When Dinty gave us the assignment for the next day: write directions or instructions for how to do something, I went back to my room in a panic. My self-talk went something like this: You don’t know how to do anything. There’s no time to research. Other people can write a decent draft in one day. You cannot, because you are not a writer. You should go home now.

I told myself to be quiet and stared at my overflowing suitcase. I wrote a draft, in list form, about what it’s like to pack for a trip when you have anxiety. I read it in class the next day, got some positive feedback, and continued tweaking it when I got home. Writer friends reviewed it, I submitted it, it got rejected. I was working full-time, so I let it, too, go dormant.

After I retired, I looked at the draft again and did some more revisions. This time, it seemed like a good fit for The Manifest-Station. Editor Angela M. Giles, agreed, and she published it. This version, which does not include either my great-grandmother or large appliances, was published some six years after its conception. It, too, had gotten shorter over time: from 1,900 to 800 words.

*

I had been writing drafts about my dad and his love of cardinals since soon after his death in 1995. I submitted a few, and they got rejected. I dragged one version to a writing class at Chautauqua Institution in 2008, where I got some great feedback during a one-on-one meeting with Liz Rosenberg but I still couldn’t get it right.

In the summer of 2016, I was reading River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things,” and I thought again of my dad and cardinals. I started fresh, with the 250-word limit in mind, and this time it worked.

*

Math gives me a headache, which is just as well. Any calculations involving how many publishable words I can produce in a specified amount of time would no doubt make me despair.

A writer friend commented that the word “dormant” sounded too passive. That made sense, so I looked up synonyms at Merriam-Webster.com, thinking that renaming my draft drawer might speed up my writing process. I found one I liked, but it has little to do with speed.

Latent: a power or quality that has not yet come forth but may emerge and develop.

The possibilities appeal to me. And regardless of the name I choose for my drawer of drafts, there is this:

I am writing.

Mostly flash.

Very slowly.

I am writing.

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Melissa Ballard apologizes if any readers are offended by the suggestive titles of her guest posts for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog: Finishing, Stripper Girl, and Slow Flash. Or, having read the posts, disappointed she does not deliver on her promises.

Brevity Podcast Episode #9: Rhiannon Navin and Ander Monson

April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

This episode, Brevity takes a detour into fiction, speaking with debut author Rhiannon Navin about making fiction from fact and how she turned her real-life emotional experience into a novel. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled creative nonfiction, with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.

Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.

Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below.

Next episode, it’s time for our listeners’ very own One-Minute Memoirs! Audio Editor Kathryn Rose and I will discuss what made the winning submissions stand out, and how to make your own story pack maximum punch in minimum space. And you’ll hear 15 fantastic, very short memoirs.

 

Show Notes: Episode #9 People and Books

Find out more about:

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Ander Monson

Letter to a Future Lover

Paul Monette

The Mezzanine

Turtle Island

Casa de los Ninos

Charley Douglas and the “laff box”

Useful Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases to Describe Ander Monson:

  1. phenomenal
  2. maverick
  3. self-involved
  4. trickeration-loving
  5. asinine
  6. straight-shooting
  7. family-betraying
  8. law-breaking
  9. ne’er-do-well
  10. bad boy
  11. future addict
  12. serious and accomplished
  13. brainy but beautiful
  14. chubby
  15. crazy
  16. more than likely delusional
  17. poetryish
  18. encyclopedic
  19. whale-kicking
  20. profane
  21. piratical
  22. regretful
  23. sympathetic
  24. criminal
  25. pensive
  26. bright but misguided
  27. hurt, badly, baldly
  28. good
  29. trying real hard to be good

Additional music by John Stebbe, Ars Sonor, and Kai Engel via freemusicarchive.org.

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Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast.

The Year of the Writer

December 21, 2017 § 33 Comments

Vintage sepia photo of young girl with dark curly hair sitting at desk holding a paper and looking thoughtful

Next year definitely the Booker longlist

How was 2017?

OK, a dumpster fire, yes, but how was your writing in 2017? Because now is a great time to consider what you got done. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and didn’t, but genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments.

Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?

Get a piece accepted? Submitted to places you want to be accepted?

Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?

Make it to a workshop or a class or a conference or a coffee date with another writer?

Read a book you really loved that showed you something about writing? Read a craft book and tried some exercises? Researched something new?

They all count. So bask in the feeling of accomplishment. Make some notes about what felt great to get done, and why it worked to do it that way. Congratulations.

When you’re done, look ahead. What kind of writing year do you want to have in 2018? Sure, a year is an arbitrary designation–maybe you operate on some sort of fiscal year, or you’re still a fan of the Julian calendar, or your new year starts February 16th. But it’s a good time to mentally reassess, because other people are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck the bookstores.

Make a little list–not too many things or it just gets overwhelming–of your writing plans. Think about the classic “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely. Specific like “I want to be published in Brevity” (and we hope you do) rather than “I want to be a published author” which is a bit wide-open. The Measurement on that one’s easy–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, maybe you got a different venue for your essay and we lost out. Attainable is also key. I’m not aiming for the Nobel Prize quite yet, plus I think someone Swedish has to nominate me. And really, winning a Nobel isn’t especially Relevant to what I want to be writing. Timely can be a deadline, or a number or pattern of attempts, so the goal feels like something you can take action on.

Here’s what I’m thinking about:

What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to write more travel pieces for mass media, so I’m making a list of places to pitch, reading their stories for tone and structure. I also signed up for a big industry convention next month, to collect business cards for tourist boards, meet media reps, and check out travel trends. Do you need help to be this kind of writer?  I’ve hired a coach to help refine my first few pitches and give feedback on story ideas.

What big project do you want to finish? Definitely another pass on my young adult novel, with a plan about how many chapters to do a week and when to start querying again. I’m organizing a writing retreat in India, and need to finish budgeting and start marketing. How are you going to do that? They’re both check-off-able tasks: chapter by chapter, email by email–“write a book” would be as nebulous and difficult as “lead a retreat.” One project is creative and the other’s business, but I’ll approach both with a defined process.

What do you want to read? More paper books and less news on my phone. How can you make that happen? Maybe turn on parental blocking on the websites that are my “I’m momentarily bored” crutches.

What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’m restructuring my freelance editing to do only one full manuscript at a time, with gaps between for my own work.

I realize that all sounds very organized. But it’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in my brain. It’s very hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what I can actually accomplish. In a way, it’s like tapas or sushi: order all at once, and you’re likely to have more food than anyone can finish. But grab the thing you love best first, enjoy it, and then order the next thing you have room for, and the next. One dish at a time. One step on a goal. And no, you do not have to order vegetables first. Choose the goal you love the most, not the obligation.

Got any questions you’re mulling over for 2018’s writing year? The comments are wide open. Ask us what you’re asking yourself. Tell us what you did–and what you’re going to do next.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Happy goal-setting and see you in 2018! 

All’s Well That Ends Well

December 5, 2017 § 26 Comments

Your ending should be one singular sensation

Flash memoir is much more difficult than “only 750 words” suggests. As readers, we see finished pieces. Work that’s had a writing buddy or teacher or group say, “I don’t understand that bit,” or “There’s a problem there. Fix it.” But as writers, we’re wading through the murky middle, trying to believe in the Santa Claus of “All the professional writers you love write terrible first drafts! So terrible they will never show you!”

Without seeing, it’s hard to believe.

That’s where reading for a literary magazine (if we can) or reading fellow writers’ work in a group or class serves us. We get to see the pages that need another draft. As a freelance editor, I see similarities in short nonfiction-in-progress. Often, pieces don’t resolve, or don’t have the key story moments of beginning, middle and end. Sometimes the narrator tells what they experienced instead of making the reader feel what they felt. But the most common challenge in flash essays is the very last line.

About half the essays I see could cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper, tighter, cleaner “button” to make even a short piece feel satisfyingly finished.

Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps as writers we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we’re so used to slogging forward it’s hard to stop that inertia at word 739. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have felt a need to work on that element of our craft.

This example is mine, for the purpose of this post—but I’m copying the structure of the issues I see most often.

[Imagine this finishes an essay about a couple visiting India, trying to get on a blocked-off beach to watch the sunset. They’ve irritated each other throughout the story in small ways; he wants to protect/insulate her, she wants to be a little dangerous/culturally insensitive.]

The policeman tried to stop us, but I’d yammered at him in English I knew he didn’t understand and ducked under the plastic tape. “He won’t shoot us, we’re tourists,” I said, and Mark ducked under, too, his face twisting into sorry at the cop and exasperated with me. We sat on piled broken concrete on the dirty beach while the sun vanished behind an oil tanker.

How can we wrap this sucker up, in a way that says something emotionally meaningful happened here, and it was a big enough deal that we bothered to write about it?

Some things to avoid:

  • Don’t summarize.

The rest of our trip had been terrible, too—if only I could have made this evening work, maybe I could have made our marriage work.

That’s when I knew I had to leave him if I was ever going to enjoy my life.

  • Don’t explain.

I hated that he wasn’t ready for the adventure I wanted my life to be.

Even in India, we were destined to clash, our different backgrounds never letting us truly understand each other.

  • Don’t justify.

As the sun set, I realized I couldn’t stay with him—I needed a partner who didn’t judge me.

If he didn’t want to travel wild, he shouldn’t have gone with me, and I wasn’t taking him any further.

  • Don’t excuse.

I wish I’d been nicer, but I was twenty, still unaware of privilege easing my way, unappreciative of what Mark meant by “relax honey, just relax.”

Thank goodness I outgrew that stage, even if it did take until our 40th wedding anniversary.

Summarizing and explaining are subconscious manifestations of our fear of not writing well enough. They tell the reader, I’d better spell it out for you in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.

Instead, use the last line to either gently enfold the reader in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. You could:

  • Take one step further than the reader thought you’d go. Go to a higher/deeper emotional level.

I wished one of us would fill our pockets with ragged cement shards and step into the waves.

[NB one line too many is a challenge for every single writer no matter what level, because I originally added It would be easier than breaking up, then realized that was one too many.]

  • Twist. Show us the opposite of everything the narrator has felt or done so far.

I wanted the cop to say no, I wanted Mark to say no, I wanted someone—anyone—to stop me, send me home, tell me where that was.

[I don’t love the “that” in the last line, so I’d wrestle more with that in a real essay.]

  • Admit guilt/fault/complicity.

“See, it’s fine,” I said, and we both knew it wasn’t—it wouldn’t ever be.

Mark’s shadow slumped on the sand, and I missed the man I’d ruined.

  • Undercut/empathize.

I reached for Mark’s hand, and we squeezed hard, each hoping we were doing something right.

Sure, there are other ways to end a flash piece strong (feel free to share examples in the comments!) But these are some techniques to get started. Once the emotion is on the page, sharpen your pencil and ask of your last line, what purpose do you serve? Let the sentence tell you if it belongs.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She just returned from scouting locations in India for a May 2018 writing workshop, hence this example.

 

In You We Trust

November 28, 2017 § 10 Comments

Picture of Meryl Streep as a fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada

…maybe just stop talking.

We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.

“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”

Wait, what?

Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”

Um, no.

We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.

Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.

Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.

These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.

For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:

This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class.

I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.

Nope.

For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).

I wrote this during my missionary work in China.

I’m a professional knitting teacher.

Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.

Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.

 

Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her travel-adventure-writing newsletter can show up twice monthly in your inbox, if that’s not telling too much.

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