December 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
Happy Third Day of Hanukkah! The season’s closing in–“Festive Winter Holiday” time, as the department stores around Dubai call it–and you may be wondering what to get the writers in your life. Or someone you love has asked that horrifying question, “What do you want for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Diwali*/Yule?”
…An agent, book auction and five-figure deal?
…Jesus to show up and explain pointedly, he really meant the part about taking care of the poor and the sick?
…A time machine to peek at 2020 and see if building a survival shelter in the present is a smart idea?
Sadly, none of these items are (currently) available for purchase. But there are plenty of other gifts for the writer in your life, and for you as the writer in someone else’s life.
Classic elegance: Buy their book, preferably from your local indie bookstore, but here at Brevity we also understand the desire to never leave the house again. Fortunately, Powell’s also ships. Double points: buy two and give one as a present to someone else, or leave it in a Little Free Library. Already own it? Review their book online!
Stocking-stuffer: See what books you’ve bought in the past six months but haven’t reviewed yet. Spread some goodwill around by writing some quick thoughts and clicking four or five stars. Especially if the writer is at less than 50 reviews: crossing that threshold really helps their visibility online. Copy-paste Amazon reviews to Goodreads, because every little bit helps.
Fellowship: Take a like-minded friend to a reading at your nearest bookstore, no matter who the writer is and whether or not you’ve ever heard of them. If it sucks, you’ll have text-LOLs for days. If it’s great, you’ve made a discovery. Either way, buy a copy of the book and know that it’s balm to a writer’s soul when strangers come to their reading.
Peace of mind: There is no vision more horrifying than the Blue Screen of Death. Why not gift your favorite writer a large-capacity hard drive or a subscription to a cloud backup service? When the ruin of the laptop lies before us, the sole comfort is knowing your manuscript’s safe.
Creative time: Offer to watch the babies for two hours, once a week, for a few weeks, so the writing parent can get some words down. If you’re lucky, she’ll schedule for naptime. Otherwise, enjoy looking at what the kids see, or finding out what they’re interested in. If you write YA, middle-grade or picture books, this is research–the gift that keeps on giving!
Creative tools: Have they been considering Scrivener? Final Draft? A creativity or organizing app? If you’re not sure exactly which one, there’s always an iTunes gift card, with a personal note saying you thought they liked X, but this is flexible just in case. For special bonus points, find out EXACTLY what kind of notebook they use, and stock them up on a few. (I love these red Moleskines–nice enough to feel special, not so fancy that they’re “too good to use.”) Likewise, do you know EXACTLY what kind of pen they like? Remember, a $935 pen is useless to someone whose words flow from a 17-cent Bic…and leaves them around everywhere.
Literary Citizenship: Sponsor your friend–or make a donation for scholarships–to a writing conference. Gift subscriptions of your favorite literary journals, or ones you know they’d like to be published in. We’re all supposed to be reading where we want to submit, and subscriptions aren’t cheap. Help their road to publication by getting them in the habit of reading in their venue. And Brevity is always happy to accept a donation in honor of a friend.
For yourself: If you don’t have an Amazon list, consider making one. We all try to be good writer buddies by reading for others when we can, and most of the time it’s a trade or a deposit in the favor bank against future need. But every so often, we end up doing professional-level or time-consuming work for someone we’re not comfortable billing. It’s easy to say, “I’m happy to help out, and will you get me something off my Amazon list?” They can choose whether to get you a great new book, a great used book, or that Belgian linen duvet set.
Remember, if you do some holiday shopping on Amazon, starting at Smile helps Brevity with a small percentage of your purchase at no extra cost.
And if you’re stuck awkwardly trying to tell people your desires, or wedged between “Oh, no, you don’t have to get me anything” and the uncomfortable knowledge that yes, you do need to get them something? Just send a link to this post. Hopefully, they’ll get the hint.
*Yes, I know Diwali was in October but it’s never to early to stock up on tea lights and gold jewelry.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.
December 7, 2017 § 30 Comments
Memories are slippery to hold. Many of what I suspect were my most brilliant story ideas were written on bits of paper too small to keep track of. The tiny notes ended up in the wash, returned in library books, or illegible.
Not any more.
For the past two years I’ve used a deceptively simple system to collect the seeds for stories. My ideas are in a central, easy-to-access place, and the method is enjoyable, helps me pull up things I’d otherwise forget, and is much easier than keeping a detailed journal. I was introduced to the system by novelist Matthew Dicks when I attended his storytelling workshop. As we made up stories on the spot, it was abundantly clear that Matt, a twenty-eight-time Moth StorySLAM winner, had an endless supply of tales to tell. We all wanted to know his secret and he gave it to us. In his TEDx talk, Matt calls his system Homework for Life.
Here’s how it works:
At the end of every day, after I brush my teeth, no matter where I am or how tired I feel, I reflect on the day, asking myself “What happened that was interesting?” It doesn’t have to be anything shocking or fantastic. Matt says many of the best stories are small, “Infinitesimal, really. If it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.”
Sometimes I list a description of an image or movie I saw, a conversation I overheard, or a personal interaction, typing a kernel of the idea beside the date, in an Excel spreadsheet. You could write it in a notebook, an app like Things (iOS only) or Evernote (all platforms), or Word document, but the spreadsheet comes with lines and boxes and works well for me. It only takes a moment. Most of the notes wouldn’t make sense to anyone else:
- hawk died
- what if I never had kids
- the art of napping
- no longer know people in People mag
- when dad’s work bench turned messy
- birds – make them come to you
- wearing uniforms
- computer passwords
- phantom pony tail
It might not look like much, but this list thrills me. I could turn any one of these ideas into an essay right now. More often than not I don’t so much write about these topics as from them; they stir up sensory memories in the same way music or photos might. When I read these small details they remind me of the big details and it all comes flooding back.
This system has helped me to some of my best writing. Keeping a daily log, I began spotting stories all over the place and living more in the moment, through my senses, because I know I will be reflecting back on events at the end of the day. Memorable lines I would have forgotten, like what the technician said to me when I was in the MRI machine that time, or events that would usually go unnoticed, like the ants moving en masse in Costa Rica, are now stories.
But here’s the most incredible thing I’ve discovered: this habit of collecting ideas has changed something in my mind and how I am in the world. It has instilled in me a sense of patience, made me see with wonder, be more willing to try new things, and look with fresh, curious eyes. The process of writing has become more important than the outcome for me and I feel fortunate every day that I am able to create something. I have stumbled upon things in New York City I might have missed if I was less attentive – an exhibit of Nabokov’s butterflies at the public library, a baby squirrel fallen from its nest in Central Park, the homeless woman outside the subway station who had been a Jackie Gleason dancer. Visceral stories are floating all around us, waiting to be brought to life.
Anne McGrath lives in the Hudson Valley with her adorable husband, sons, and dogs. Her work has appeared in Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Chapman University’s Dirt Cakes, The Caterpillar Magazine, and the One Hundred Voices anthology. She is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Anne’s short story, “Performing with the Dead,” was featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essay segment and she has participated in story slams at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former house in Massachusetts, and the Noah Webster House in Connecticut.
November 21, 2017 § 25 Comments
Have we got an offer for you!
Would you like to improve your writing craft today? By, say, 10%?
This doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but after editing essays and books and posts for the Brevity blog, for experienced writers and new writers and everyone in between, I’ve noticed a lot of repetition.
Not from book to book, although I see that. Not even from paragraph to paragraph, although I see that too.
Within the same sentence.
Sometimes it’s telling as well as showing:
He looked like an old man with his grey hair and gnarled hands.
Tell it once:
His hands were gnarled.
Better yet, show it in an action:
He ran a gnarled hand through his grey hair.
He picked at the tablecloth with a gnarled hand.
Sometimes it’s showing the same thing multiple times:
Jane patted my shoulder, gently massaging my arm to calm me down as she said, “Shhh, there, there.”
Show it once:
Jane rubbed my shoulder. “Shh, there, there.”
(Using an action as a dialogue tag is a great way to avoid repeating information.)
Sometimes it’s a festive riot of showing, telling, and over-explaining:
I picked up my phone and texted my boyfriend:
Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts
Although the only thing I spelled correctly was his name, when I sent him the text I thought it was very clear.
Pare it down:
I texted my boyfriend:
Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts
I thought it was very clear.
Texting implies the phone is in the narrator’s hand. There’s comedy in the juxtaposition of the garbled text and “I thought it was very clear.”
As writers, we worry we’re not good enough to get our point across in fewer words. That our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense?
But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Putting together clues to understand behavior, noticing dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guessing a character’s thoughts from their gestures—all these moments of detective work engage the reader more fully in the story. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—let them meet you on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.
This also applies to “filtering”:
I looked at James as he stomped over.
I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.
I heard him shout my name.
“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”
James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”
Removing the filtering lets the reader imagine themselves in the narrator’s shoes. It’s subtle, but it puts the reader a tiny bit more in the emotion of the scene. It lets them feel for us, instead of telling them what we felt.
If you’re having a wildly creative day, by all means go generate new material. But if you’re having a day where you should do some writing…and you’ll feel better if you do…but it’s all kind of looking like a slog—start slogging. Pick some pages and use the Find tool to spot “looked” “felt” “heard” “thought” and variations on those verbs. Ask of each one, “Do I really need you here?” Scan your sentences for repetitions and over-explaining. Ask in each place, “Can I make the reader work a little harder?”
It’s not our job to make everything make sense. Our job is to lay out enticing clues and let the reader solve the puzzle with us. To immerse them in our world–but learning, feeling, and making their own sense.
Photo credit: Cinecom Int’/Island Alive/REX/Shutterstock (5871592c)
November 13, 2017 § 16 Comments
We’re trying something new.
The Brevity Podcast is seeking submissions for our One-Minute Memoir episode. We’re looking for ultra-flash nonfiction of 100-150 words (on paper) and up to one minute (recording time). Accepted pieces will be broadcast in our February episode and receive a $25 honorarium.
November 9, 2017 § 44 Comments
This is the blog post I didn’t write because it was a terrible idea. So why even start?
This is the blog post I didn’t write because the ceiling was leaking.
This is the post I didn’t write because I couldn’t figure out the coffeemaker and then I knocked it over.
This is the post I didn’t write because jet lag.
This is the post I didn’t write because the goddamn neighbor’s goddamn TV is so goddamn loud I can make out words through the wall.
This is the post I didn’t write because Facebook made me mad. And sad.
This is the post I didn’t write because I sat down and then the doorbell rang.
This is the post I didn’t write because I’d rather take a walk and self-care is important.
This is the post I didn’t write because don’t force it.
This is the blog post I half-assed through before deadline and I can always put it in Drafts and write something better, at some other time, when my mood and surroundings will be perfect.
This is the free-form piece I begrudgingly typed because even poorly chosen words I will later delete count and I can tick it off in my Productive app and the app will make a pleasing sound like Pavlov’s Writer.
This is the morning I should feel lucky and privileged to get to write while lots of other people go to real jobs and do real things like grown-ups.
Goddamn that TV is loud.
This is the blog post I’m forcing myself to write while children play ball and shriek in Spanish in the schoolyard my Airbnb backs up to.
This is what I am writing instead of the grant proposal I promised to write, instead of the novel I should be working on, instead of the memoir proposal I should also be working on, instead of just freeing myself to write anything in my notebook and open many doors and explore details more thoroughly like my respected teacher told me to.
This is me writing instead of nudging the teacher for feedback on the manuscript I sent even though I warned him it was really bad.
This is the writing I do through self-doubt and worry and too many things on my list. This is the writing I do instead of knocking on the wall and telling the neighbor to please, please turn it down even just a little. This is the writing I do before I go buy a sticky pad and leave a passive-aggressive post-it on their door. This is the writing I do because yes, I’m lucky and yes, it’s not coal-mining and yes, lots of people think they want this life of staying in a cool fun neighborhood in London all by myself with nowhere I have to be on time, because the price of having the life you want is living the life you have.
This is the blog post that says you are not alone in your bad mood and imperfect surroundings and terrible ideas. That I am not alone in sadness and jet lag and irritation and the antsy pull to get out of the chair and do something, anything else. To get out of my life and do something else, except there is nothing else I want to do as much as I want to write and not writing is worse than writing (not by much).
This is checking my tool box and wondering where the secret tool that makes it easy is. This is suspecting everyone else has the secret tool and they’re all only pretending it’s hard so I don’t feel bad.
This is ridiculous envy.
This is the typing before the writing starts, the typing or scribbling or concentrated thinking without an electronic device, the commitment to sit down and write, whether or not it sucks. This is moving the fingers or the pen on an empty tank and hoping the act of moving will make it full. This is watching the word count tick up past the imposter mark.
This is facing the empty page today and knowing it will be there again tomorrow.
This is saying, come get me empty pages. I’m not ready but I’m here anyway.
This is writing anyway.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Of course the neighbors turned the TV off when she finished. Like, on literally the very last goddamn word.
October 12, 2017 § 28 Comments
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., edited by E. B. White.
In 1974, my Journalism 101 professor gave only two pieces of required reading: the local city newspaper, and The Elements of Style.
One book. One daily.
What could be easier?
Turned out, a lot of things. Concise writing takes diligence, skill, and patience. Three things I lacked as a college sophomore. But I pecked away on my typewriter, practicing every day, until I finally scored a coveted reporter’s job, the first of many.
Thirty years later, resurrecting my writing career, I faced a no-nonsense adjunct teaching The Art of Flash Nonfiction. She required we start small—only 250 words written to prompts she provided the first week, 500 words the next week, then 750, until we reached a polished 1000-word essay by the end of the semester. Plus we would read a series of essays from a website called Brevity. We could email her brief questions only if absolutely necessary.
A thousand words. On-line reading.
What could be easier?
She passed out a Brevity essay, Debra Marquart’s Hochzeit. “Read the essay to yourselves,” she said, “then tell me what’s different about it.”
The story swirled in front of my eyes in a whirlwind of colors, sounds, flavors and scents, as the author remembers a family wedding from her childhood. Thirty-nine sentences in seven meager paragraphs transported me to a Polka hall in the Midwest, the beat and bellow of pumping accordions, “whoops and yips” from spinning dancers in their flared skirts and beribboned finery, and the burning sweetness of “gold pools of wedding whiskey.”
Marquart’s writing was different from anything I’d read. It wasn’t your standard nonfiction piece, it wasn’t journalism—even if you could measure it in column inches, and it wasn’t the New Journalism the old me left behind decades ago. I needed to know why the piece left such a visceral impact on me.
When the instructor asked what we thought, my hand crept up. “The writer omitted needless words?”
“Yes. That’s one thing. Thank you, E.B. White. Anyone else?” The class tittered.
“The who, what, when, where, and sometimes why, are clearly up front,” I added, reaching back to the first rules I learned about newspaper reporting.
“Yes,” she said, “but what else. Anyone besides Ryder?”
I sunk back down in my hard plastic chair. What exactly was it about Marquart’s essay that had awakened me?
Our assignment for the week was to write two 250-word essays. If they were one word over, they would not be read or graded. We were given more essays from Brevity—Anne Panning’s Candy Cigarettes; Sarah Lin’s Devotion; Erika Dreifus’ Before Sunrise—to study for style, voice, metaphor, lyricism. Carefully. If we did not understand the terminology we were to email her—briefly—before the next class.
For seven long days, I slaved over my two pieces, editing and re-editing. I dissected the reading assignments like a frog in freshman biology, peeling back each story’s tiny skin layer by layer. First the story line, then the structure, finally the writer’s word choices. I searched for every metaphor, each simile, every omitted word. What was it about these little essays that left me with a feeling of such grandiosity in so few words?
It came to me on the seventh day—driving the twenty miles to campus alone, windows rolled down to bright September. My eyes took in the reds, golds and oranges of the maple leaves flickering across my windshield, backlit by a sky the color of the bluest sea. The sun shone on my arm resting on the open window, the last of summer falling onto my Shetland sweater. Finally, I understood. It was the smaller details that made the larger story.
After we handed in our assignments, the instructor asked what we’d learned reading and writing short prose. I shot up my hand.
“Yes?” she said, sighing a little.
“The words seemed hand-chosen, cherry-picked, then boiled down to extract only the most essential details. The writer shows the reader a dreamlike memory, crystal clear in the telling.”
“Bingo!” she said and smiled broadly.
Two semesters later, I entered a Brevity Blog contest and won second place. The first person I emailed was my instructor. Writing, I realized, is not just about following style books and memorizing classroom notes. When you omit the needless, you choose the necessary– and sometimes, that is one perfect ray of sun falling on the back of your hand.
Ryder S. Ziebarth runs the Cedar Ridge Writers Series and blogs for Proximity. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and served as an Associate editor of Tiferet Journal. Her work has appeared in Brevity, N Magazine, The New York Times, The Writer’s Circle, Tiferet, and many other other blogs, newspapers and online journals.
August 15, 2017 § 7 Comments
It’s time once again for the intermittent Brevity Podcast! Listen 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.
Episode #5 features an interview with Dinty W. Moore, our very own Editor in Chief and founder of Brevity. Dinty will be keynote speaking at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below. Next episode, we’ll be talking with Donna Talarico-Beerman, Editor in Chief at Hippocampus and the Hippocampus Press.
Show Notes: Episode #5 People and Books
It’s the wrong time of year for Peeps, but catch them around Easter. If you’re looking for Samuel Pepys, find out more here. You can also read his exhaustive diary, one of the great records of 17th-Century London, including eyewitness reports of the Plague and the Great Fire of London.