December 12, 2016 § 1 Comment
It’s time once again for the 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 #3 features an interview with Rick Moody on form, function, life coaching and how to handle the part of depression that makes one want to walk in front of a bus, without losing access to one’s creative spirit. We also speak with Athena Dixon, editor-in-chief and founder of Linden Avenue Lit, about where and how to find new voices of color, and the evolution of her writing from R&B fan fic to establishing a strong new literary magazine.
Our episode sponsor is the recorded webinar, Developmental Editing for Fiction and Memoir – useful for authors and editors, and available at Editors Canada (note that the price is in CDN$).
Show Notes: Episode #3 People, Books and Places
Athena’s favorite poem, Euphoria by Major Jackson
Athena’s favorite Another Bad Creation song, Jealous Girl. (The band looks like they’re about 9 years old!)
Crossroads: the story of Robert Johnson and the Devil, on Radiolab
November 22, 2016 § 7 Comments
Every so often, I’m asked to edit a memoir that’s more of a case file. That is, it’s a series of incidents showing an antagonist in the worst possible light, a justification of actions taken by the protagonist, and a summing-up that involves bravely coming into the light.
They don’t work.
Not because they’re badly written on a line-by-line level, but because structurally, there’s no mystery. We already know whodunit, because they’re the person being textually crucified.
We can learn a lot from Agatha Christie. Or Dorothy Sayers. Ruth Rendell. P.D. James. Any of the stellar writers of relatively formulaic mystery novels. There’s a crime. There’s an investigation. The culprit is identified and caught, and the book usually stops right before the punishment—it’s the “Law” half of “Law & Order.” Chung-chung.
In a classic mystery (and Hamlet), the question is, “Whodunit? And will they be caught?”
In narrative nonfiction, the mystery is “Where did this thing/idea/practice come from? Where is it going?” or “What really happened here?”
For memoir, it’s “Why’d I do that?” or “What really happened to me?”
Laying out the facts in a row and (often unconsciously) slanting them toward the protagonist’s hurt feelings is boring. It’s boring because there’s nothing to discover—it’s all right there. Telling instead of showing, on a whole-book level. No-one wants to be lectured about how everything adds up to a solution they just got told. Instead, make the reader your detective.
The fun of reading—whether it’s playful excitement or intense engagement—comes from spotting the clues and making deductions. The reader needs the a-ha moments of “Oh shit! He’s a bad guy!” or “Wow—no wonder they turned out like that.” The reader needs the investigative moments of “What’s going to happen? Who will it happen to?” The more the reader autopsies with you, the more they engage in the book. We don’t know what’s about to happen, but we want to. This tension makes us read to the next paragraph and flip to the next page. The more the reader almost-but-not-quite pieces together the solution, the more satisfying the final revelation that fits it all together and confirms a hunch. The reader experiences the situation with the narrator and makes their own emotional realizations (which are often but not always the same as the narrator’s).
On a narrative level, that means don’t give away the solution first and then present all the evidence that adds up, which is the format of a scholarly paper. We need a burning question—What happened to me?—and then to investigate with the narrator, and make discoveries not just along the way, but that must be made to get to the answer.
Investigating mystery leads readers to enlightenment, to empathy, and to catharsis. George Saunders says,
The idea I love is that is a story is kind of a black box. And you’re gonna put the reader in there, she’s gonna spend some time with this thing that you have made, and when she comes out, what’s gonna have happened to her in there is something kind of astonishing–it feels like the curtain has been pulled back and like she’s gotten a glimpse into a deeper truth.
As a story writer, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
It’s a bad start to write a memoir already knowing what the story is, and going there with fixed intention. “Let the story surprise you,” Saunders urges–what you think you know may not be the story, even if it happened to you. Be ready to look underneath.
With memoir, looking underneath is sometimes interrogating our imagination and sometimes out-there-with-a-recorder research. It can be challenging to change our own minds, especially about an experience or situation so powerful that we must write it, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt, how we reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why. When we lay out the clues on the page, and allow ourselves to investigate, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a webinar on story structure in fiction and memoir for Editors Canada, December 3&4 (recorded for on-demand viewing after).
August 3, 2016 § 12 Comments
Sitting down to write the Brevity blog today, I found myself at a loss for “inspiration.” Meaning, “that feeling when an idea shows up and you’re excited about it enough to get to work.” I felt sorry for myself and got kind of whiny, but then I remembered my writer friend Lindsay Price’s favorite saying whenever the work feels tough: “It’s not coal-mining.” No matter how hard my little fingers are typing, I’m above the ground in climate-controlled comfort and in a chair.
Lindsay’s an incredibly prolific playwright, and she’s been writing full-time for almost twenty years. Because she sits down every day. Because she keeps her eyes open on the world for what her readers/actors care about, stocks up on ideas, and makes conscious choices to start work instead of waiting for the work to start her.
As a writer, it’s not my job to be inspired–it’s my job to sit down and write. It’s my job to collect links to essays and articles I think might interest our readers, to note ideas on scraps of paper and in my phone, so I have something to write about whether I’m “inspired” or not. To fill up a well of ideas, so I can drink when it’s not raining inspiration.
In an interview with The Splendid Table, indie rap queen Dessa responds to the question, “Where do the lyrics come from?”
…I’m not completely sure. I think sometimes it feels as I grow older, and you’ve had more bouts of inspiration and more dry spells, it feels more like kinda catching a wave than it does going to a well. So when you feel that a good lyric day is happening to you, it’s like, OK, what can I get off my calendar today, ‘cause I don’t get these every day. So you’re standing at the place lightning struck last time, but it’s still a game of odds and chance…it’s something that I don’t understand completely.
One of the things I’ve learned from writing here is that I don’t have to wait for lightning to strike. I can go to the well, and going to the well every week starts to create its own wave, as if each bucket I throw into the reservoir makes a tiny ripple, and the more buckets I carry, the wider the ripples spread until I can start to surf them, flow with the ideas that form themselves into words and appear on the page like dirty magic.
But the first bucket sucks. It’s always got some shitty, splintery handle and a hole in the side and it’s exactly the right size to bang into my leg and leave bruises all over my knees. The first bucket is my so-called ‘writer buddy’ working a three-day weekend and then his biological mom comes into town for his birthday and WHERE’S MY FUCKING WRITING DATE YOU GODDAMN TRAITOR?
The first bucket is making too big a writing schedule and being pretty sure I’ll fail at it. Because making a schedule means I can trade the excuse of “I’m a great writer, I’m just lazy” for “I’m a great writer, I just take on too much.”
It’s the bucket of You Would Not Believe How Much I Can Cross Off My To-Do List Before I Sit Down to Write the First Word. Yeah, that one’s on sale this week, so I stocked up. My floors are spotless.
It’s hard to remember that the buckets get better. Lighter. Easier to fill, the path to the reservoir shortening once I know the landmarks. That I don’t have to be under pressure to make a deadline in order to write. That the most successful and published writers I know are not waiting around for the wave to lift them up, they’re carrying buckets every day. They are not praying for inspiration or agonizing about the meaning of creativity, they’re mining the goddamn coal.
We don’t all have the same amount of time, but we can all remember to use our time regardless of our level of inspiration. Stock up on water when we can. Pour it into the empty, cavernous reservoir, bucket by bucket. Trusting we’ll make some ripples, trusting they’ll make some waves.
Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her new book, Get Published In Literary Magazines, comes out August 20th.
July 13, 2016 § 10 Comments
Yesterday, a writer I work with confessed her greatest fear–lack of originality. She felt she didn’t have anything to say that hadn’t already been said. What could she offer that was new, different, worth reading?
I’ve felt that. The sharp stab when seeing an essay gone viral, or a book about an experience I’ve had, too. The feeling of that should be mine.
In The Millions, Kaulie Lewis writes about seeing other writers’ books and essays and wishing desperately that she’d written them:
…I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first…My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
It’s not just us. Everyone (well, maybe not Jonathan Franzen) worries that what they want to write has already been done, probably better, by someone else.
It doesn’t matter.
There’s room for Wild and A Walk in the Woods. For Bird by Bird and On Writing and The Art of Memoir. For Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. What matters is not the subject, but what the writer brings to the table. It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the rarity of a specific expression of that idea. I went for a hike–why? I learned to write–how? My family won’t stop fighting so I can find love–guns or swords?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.”
But we do. No-one else can tell our particular, unique, specific story. It’s why showing is so much better than telling, why details are better than generalities.
It’s up to each of us to discover not just the general appeal of our work (cancer memoir! lost a parent! recovery!) but the nature of the story that is so personal, so intimate, it can only be told by one person. Here is a topic that everyone cares about, and here is a new way to think about it.
We are seldom original. But we can always be rare.
Kaulie Lewis’ essay at The Millions is well worth reading, and mentions what to do when you feel like your piece has already been written.
Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her most recent essay, at Story Club, is generally about being really angry, but specifically includes a goat sacrifice.
September 21, 2015 § 33 Comments
How many drafts must a writer draft
Before you call it a book?
How many times must you read the text
Before your editor looks?
Yes, how many times should it be revised
To get a reader hooked?
The answer my friend is seven.
Last week I was invited to speak to Wrimo India, a group of participants in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) who formed their own writing support group on Facebook and also do in-person meet-ups to write, talk writing, and write some more.
We met at a coffee shop in Mumbai and live-streamed the chat through Periscope so non-local writers could join in and ask questions. One of the best questions, though, was after the camera was turned off:
How many drafts do I need to write before hiring an editor?
First, let’s deconstruct. Not everybody needs an editor, so let’s look at this question as:
What kind of shape does my book need to be in before I spend money or use up favors to get outside feedback?
Many writers finishing a book for the first time don’t yet have a method of working their way through subsequent drafts. Where do you start? How can you tell what needs fixing? How do you know if the book is even worth another draft?
As a freelance editor, I see a lot of the same issues in everyone’s essays, stories, memoirs and novels. Technical issues like wrongly formatted or too many dialogue tags. Voice issues like inconsistent speech or characters who sound the same. Point-of-view issues like head-hopping or characters being able to see or understand things they don’t have access to. As an editor, I can note these issues for authors who want to fix them, or address them myself for authors who want to throw money. But most of these issues can be found and reworked by the author before they spend money on professional editing or use up a “please give me feedback on my manuscript” favor. It’s time-consuming and thinking-intensive, but it’s not a secret or a talent–it’s a skill anyone willing to go through seven drafts can acquire.
Here’s the seven-draft method:
The Vomit Draft: get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled right. Don’t worry about complete sentences because. Sure there’s a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, and in the second-last chapter you realized you really do have to put Aunt Nancy in this book. Just finish. If you hit a place where you don’t know what to write, put in a placeholder like “NEED SCENE WITH MOM HERE SOMETHING HUMOROUS,” or write about the scene that belongs there, like “That time I was in the kitchen and Steve touched the stove and I just knew we were going to break up because of the way his fist wrapped around the salt shaker.” Then let the manuscript sit for a week.
The Story Draft: take a look at the manuscript, and for each scene write one sentence about what happens in that scene.
While driving home from a wedding, I find a stray dog.
I take the dog home and keep her over my girlfriend’s objections.
My girlfriend demands I choose between her and the dog.
I go get a haircut.
During this process, you’ll discover any places that the plot doesn’t make sense, is missing a big event, has a random extra scene (why the haircut?) needs another character to show up, etc. This is also the time to fill in any placeholders from the first draft. Revise the manuscript accordingly and let it sit for a week.
The Character Draft: For each character, go through the book and read only their parts. If this is a memoir, this is the time to make sure the protagonist’s actions and reactions seem motivated and urgent. Make sure the characters only know what’s in their heads and only see what they can actually see. For example, four-year-old child-you can’t see the top of the kitchen counter. Adult-you can guess at other people’s thoughts but not omnisciently know them. This is also a chance to go through the dialogue, character by character, making sure that each person sounds like themselves, and that it would be pretty clear who is speaking even without dialogue tags. If you’re writing fiction, you may discover that a character needs more on-page time in the book. Revise, let sit.
The Technical Draft: Working chapter-by-chapter, does each chapter end with both satisfaction and forward motion? Does each chapter start with a compelling action or image? With each scene, have you gotten in as late as you can and still set the scene, and have you ended the scene as early as you can and still have it feel complete? Are there extra words? Sentences that don’t make sense? Refine your authorial voice in this draft. By now you should know what you want to say–this draft is about how to say it. It’s also useful at this stage to do a search-and-find for -ly and remove unnecessary adverbs; to eliminate as many “was verbing” constructions as you can, and check on words you know you overuse. Revise, let sit.
The Personal Copyedit: Not to be confused with an actual copyedit, this is an easy draft. Run spellcheck with the grammar turned on. Print out the manuscript and see what shows up when you’re turning a physical page. Read it out loud and catch errors that your eyes got used to on the screen. This is the be-kind-to-your-reader draft. Yes, it’s still a work in progress, but you want it to be a pleasant experience for the next step…
The Friend Read: Sometimes called a beta read. This is where you exchange manuscripts with a writer pal, or call in favors from the people who keep offering to read your book. It’s best to arm your friend with some specific questions: Did the story make sense? Where did your attention flag? Which character do you want to see more of? Was anything distracting from the main story? When you get their comments back, try to get them in writing, even if that’s you taking notes while they talk. Do not defend your book. Do not assume they missed something. Set the notes aside for a couple of days and then go back and see what rings true when your feelings have cooled down. Revise accordingly.
The Editor Read: This still doesn’t have to mean forking out cash. This can be the first time you send it to your agent, if you’re working with an agent. This can be exchanging manuscripts with someone you know to be harsher or more technically-demanding than the previous reader. And yes, it can also mean hiring a professional editor or writing coach. But this is the draft where it’s worth either spending money or calling in a big favor (and you’ve been reading for other people as much as you can this whole time, right?) Before you send it out, read it one more time yourself. Knowing that a big read is imminent, more issues will stick out to you.
These seven drafts are often more than one draft each. You might do three Story Drafts, or two rounds of Friend Reading. Some drafts take days, some take weeks or months. You might backtrack and revisit the Technical Draft after doing an on-paper Personal Copyedit. Let it sit for as long as you need to between drafts. And for at least a couple of drafts, print it out, edit the manuscript on sloppy, satisfying paper, and retype the whole thing so you can feel the flow.
I’ve found this method to work for everything from essays to full-length memoirs and novels. If you try it, let me know how it goes. And if you’ve got a different method or a variation, please tell us about it in the comments.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. If you’d like to watch the 25-minute Periscope video, we also talk about writing books set in cultures foreign to your own, common technical mistakes, how every book is a mystery, and what to do if your book gets banned. (We get started about 2 minutes in, and please note this was extemporaneous, taped on a phone, and in a coffee shop.)
September 4, 2015 § 2 Comments
Ah, David Foster Wallace. The teacher we either wish desperately we had or are heartily thankful we didn’t. And a kickass syllabus writer, too. For instance:
…the adjective creative signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work. This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.
Check out the whole thing–and wonder what grade you might have gotten on the scale of “Mind-blowingly good” to “Downright bad”–over at Salon.
May 18, 2015 § 27 Comments
While editing another author’s work this morning, I found myself wrestling with how to say, “You have 170,000 words, but you don’t have a story.” They are well-written words, they are good words, they are interesting words…but as Gertrude Stein wrote about Oakland, California, “there’s no there there.” Nothing is at stake. No-one is risking their health or happiness in service of a greater goal.
As writers, we’re often told “raise the stakes.” How can we tell if the stakes are high enough in our own work, even before asking for the opinions of our fellow authors or our teachers?
The “In a World” test.
Think about the cheesy movie-trailer cliché. There’s a shot of alien-created devastation. Or a sunrise over a battlefield. Or a sunrise over a castle. A deep voice intones, “In a world…”
That’s the stasis, the situation as it is now, the situation that cannot be sustained. Overturning this situation is a high-risk, high-stakes problem.
“One man must…”
That’s the protagonist’s quest/goal/objective. What they want. The rest of the movie will be about the protagonist overturning the unacceptable “world” and trying to get what they “must” have.
In fiction, the “in a world” moment is almost always in the first chapter, often in the first paragraph. The moment is usually pretty easy to figure out:
In a world…where a kid is alone and on the run…One kid must locate a priceless painting before he and his friend are killed by gangsters. (The Goldfinch)
In a world…where Kathy has no choice but to care for the dying…One girl must find out if she has free will. (Never Let Me Go)
In a world…where poverty can kill you and a girl is a washed-up old maid at twenty…One girl must marry a rich husband without violating her own scruples. (Pride and Prejudice)
I’d argue that it should be there at the beginning in nonfiction, too. At the very least the premise should be clear within the first chapter. What’s the untenable existing situation? What’s at stake for the protagonist? What’s the positive effect on their health and happiness if they overturn the situation, and how will they be harmed if they don’t?
In a world…where I’ve screwed up my relationships, taken too many drugs, and slept with too many people…I must walk 2600 miles to find myself. (Wild)
In a world…where my mom is rooting through a dumpster…I must become at peace with the rotten past that made me who I am. (The Glass Castle)
Chances are, if it’s hard to find your “In a world…one person must…” moment, your stakes aren’t high enough. The starting place isn’t untenable enough. Your narrator (possibly you) doesn’t have enough at stake to make the story compelling.
So try it. Stand up, deepen your voice, and state the premise of your memoir. Does it sound cheesy and overdramatic when you say it like that? If it does, you’re probably starting from the right place.
Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She also freelances as The Unkind Editor.