What I Wish I Wrote

July 13, 2016 § 11 Comments

Jealousy

And that’s how Becky with the good hair got started…

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?

Lewis writes:

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.

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Allison K 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.

How Many Drafts Must a Writer Draft?

September 21, 2015 § 35 Comments

I'm pretty sure you're supposed to be writing right now.

I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to be writing right now.

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.

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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.)

David Foster Wallace’s CNF Syllabus

September 4, 2015 § 2 Comments

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

Also a noted bandana-wearer.

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.

In a World…

May 18, 2015 § 28 Comments

Movie-Trailer-posterWhile 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.

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Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She also freelances as The Unkind Editor.

Investigating the Truth: Nonfiction as Rhetoric

January 23, 2015 § 3 Comments

Police_investigation_by_FrycoholicWayne Miller and Joanna Luloff recently took the helm as nonfiction editors at Copper Nickel, as the magazine restarted and rebooted after a hiatus following the untimely death of Copper Nickel founder, poet Jake Adam York.

At Essay Daily, Wayne and Joanna talk about what they look for in creative nonfiction, and the idea that a unique characteristic of nonfiction is that it privileges process over product – that is, that we are as engaged in how the author gets to the truth as we are in what that truth actually may be.

Joanna says

While narrative can play a role in elucidating the ideas of an essay, I tend to favor nonfiction that takes investigation as its primary mode over traditional narrative craft (i.e. character development, scene construction, plot, etc.). To me, associative logic is a wonderful pleasure in nonfiction writing, where we can see a writer exploring her subject without narrative restraint (like Eula Biss or Lia Purpura do in their essays).

Read their discussion at Essay Daily, and perhaps head over to Copper Nickel to submit your work.

Liars and Pranksters and Frauds, Oh My

November 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

Le_Voyage_dans_la_lunemovieimageHere at Brevity we’re all about the truth. While some authors–notably Pam Houston in her essay “Corn Maze”–make a case for judiciously incorporating fictional elements that smooth out a narrative–we’re in favor of the tangled web of real life on the page, loose ends, messy plot lines and all.

Other journalists, not so much.

Longform has curated a collection of some of the most notable falsehoods in non-fiction: Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke, of course, but also some pieces intended as pranks, such as this gem from the New York Sun in August 1835, describing the discovery of life on the Moon:

At the foot of this boundary of hills was a perfect zone of woods surrounding the whole valley, which was about eighteen or twenty miles wide, at its greatest breadth, and about thirty in length. Small collections of trees, of every imaginable kind, were scattered about the whole of the luxuriant area; and here our magnifiers blest our panting hopes with specimens of conscious existence. In the shade of the woods on the south-eastern side, we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history.

Equally fascinating is the level of language in the Sun’s story–the article about Dr. Herschel’s “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made” is flowery beyond novels of the period, and yet this was a mass paper, a tabloid, intended for everyday reading. The life-on-the-Moon story ran as a six-day serial, and it was America’s first “media event.” The Sun sold 100,000 copies at a time when the population of New York was only 300,000.

Check out the Great Moon Hoax, and work by George Plimpton, Nik Cohn, and more, over at Longform.

 

Your Personal Essay’s in My Journalism!

October 22, 2014 § 7 Comments

Anybody remember the one with the guy eating peanut butter at the opera?

Anybody remember the one with the guy eating peanut butter at the opera?

…Your journalism’s in my personal essay! But are they two great reads that read great together? Do confessionals really get us closer to the truth than reportage?

At the Washington Post, Eve Fairbanks takes a look at the recent trend of first-person narratives used to fill column inches that were previously journalism, and questions whether they really open up new vistas, or are instead inescapably biased and perhaps even jejune.

…perhaps what we’re really seeing, with the so-called democratization of opinion, is how weird and variegated writers’ lives actually are, rather than a profoundly widened window into human experience. From Homer onwards, it’s always been the duty of reporters to tell stories about the lives of those people who cannot spin great stories out of their own astonishing experiences.

Ironically enough, the article is itself a first-person essay rather than journalism. It’s not necessary for every essay mentioned to be investigated, but this leads to lumping them together as not-journalism. Ms. Fairbanks misses, for example, that the woman pictured with twins (whose essay What Happened When I Drove My Mercedes to Pick Up Food Stamps Ms. Fairbanks cites as an example of the trend) is veteran reporter-turned-stay-at-home-mom Darlena Cuhna, and the Mercedes piece sparked a national conversation on poverty that was covered by CNN and Al Jazeera, among other ‘real’ news outlets.

Should the reporter be in the story? Should a story be the reporter’s story? What makes an essay journalism? Ms. Fairbanks examines these thought-provoking questions from several angles and with quite a few links to first-person pieces worth exploring.

Check it out here.

The Tomatoes Could Be Terrible. Write Anyway.

October 20, 2014 § 19 Comments

heirloom_tomatoesI just started working as an editor. I’m freelance, so I see a lot of self-published work, some of which fits every horrible stereotype about self-publishing. But no matter how near the beginning of their craft the author is, they’re still one up on me:

They finished a book.

They didn’t wait for the Fairy MFAmother to whack them with her magic Now You May Go To The Writer Ball wand, they didn’t let their mother’s dismissals or their lack of time stop them. They followed Nora Roberts‘ (and so many other prolific big-name authors’) maxim:

Ass in chair.

For us creative nonfictioneers, it’s often not a failure of imagination or work ethic, but a fear of not measuring up that dogs our ability to finish–or even start.

Should I write about the cancer? Nah, everyone’s got a cancer memoir. What about that time we broke up? Modern Love did that last week. My dad died? Special to me, but not everyone else. Sorry, Dad.

Fear of not being interesting, fear that our experience is too common, that we have nothing to say, that no-one wants to hear it, can paralyze a writer. After all, why should anyone care?

But there are three paths to memoir: be famous, do something amazing, or write well. We can’t control the first, and the second is often dangerous or expensive. As for writing well, we don’t know until the third, fourth, or fifth draft whether or not we’ve hit the mark. Stopping–or not starting–because we’re scared we won’t measure up is like throwing away the seeds because we might be allergic to tomatoes.

At Women Writers, Women’s Books, Shanan Haislip writes,

I still wonder if my life is a bit boring for a real writer. And it’s funny how the words can silenced by simple insecurity, by doubt, by the writer’s need to measure up to something, somehow. If you let it—and this takes courage—writing always comes through the cracks.

So dig out the damn seeds and plant the tomatoes. Maybe they’ll be bitter, or misshapen, or an odd color. They still might make great marinara. You won’t know unless you plant.

Go write. Not later. Not when you’re “interesting,” not when you’re unafraid. Now.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Every day she wonders if that was the last word she had.

Girlie Stuff

October 6, 2014 § 2 Comments

Will Brevity's Social Media Editor give the Editor-in-Chief a literary heart attack?

Will Brevity’s Social Media Editor give the Editor-in-Chief a literary heart attack with a sparkly gif?

This year’s National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction, released last week, included 10 nominees. One was a woman. One was a person of color. Blah blah blah demographics blah blah nonrepresentational–we know all that. And it still sucks. But is any of this inherent in the books themselves? Anne Boyd Rioux writes at The Millions:

Are fewer women writing nonfiction, you might ask. I suppose it depends on what you call “nonfiction.” According to the last few years’ NBA juries, it is mostly history (preferably about war or early America); biography (preferably about men, especially presidents); or reportage (preferably about war, the economy, or non-Western countries).

Are the subjects chosen by women writers seen as less worthy, less weighty? Or is it something in the approach?

Women’s attraction to memoirs and essays, many of which focus on the issues unique to women’s lives, may in fact have much to do with their low profile…in recent years, the major awards have not reflected much of an interest in works that defy category—whether it be in their play between fiction and nonfiction or simply in their interest in combining elements of subgenres within nonfiction…

Maybe we’re back to the old trope that a man writing about his life is a universal coming-of-age story and a woman writing about hers is a women’s book? When I searched “coming of age story bildungsroman” I got 20 books in the clever picture scroll at the top of the results. At first I was excited–Jane Eyre! Bastard Out of Carolina! Maybe I was wrong! Then I counted. Six books by women. Sure, it’s a Google search, not a definitive literary list–but it represents what’s being talked about on the Internet. What a larger portion of the population believes define the category. (Don’t search “great nonfiction,” it’ll just depress you.)

In Is There No Gender Equity in Nonfiction, Ms. Rioux takes a look at the NBA Longlist, and suggests twelve books by women that should be on the awards radar. There’s some cute little books there, ladies: Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction An Unnatural Historyyou know, girlie stuff.

Read Anne Boyd Rioux’s article at The Millions.

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Allison K Williams is the Social Media Editor at Brevity.

 

The Opposite of Brevity

October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

OliverTwist_6957Sometimes, a reader just wants…more. And here, well, we’re brief. Very brief. The soul of wit, as it were. But if you’re settling in for a morning’s reading–and you’ve already savored Brevity‘s Fall issue–skip the clickbait and listicles (the food and the book have to come out even, right?) and head over to Longform.

Longform rounds up (of course) long form essays, journalism, podcasts and a weekly fiction piece.

Their curated article sets are a great way to explore a subject across time–The Longform Guide to Bank Heists included pieces on prolific, famous, and infamous bank robbers, including the true story behind Dog Day Afternoon. The juxtapositions of subject matter and style are intriguing–Sarah Miller’s To Cook or Not To Cook from the September issue of Cafe is side by side with a piece on corrupt congressman James Traficant, from The New Republic, July 2000.

It’s a great place to spend some time.

 

 

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