May 16, 2017 § 10 Comments
In another life, I was an actor. My undergrad degree is in Theatre; my creative-writing MFA is technically in Playwriting. Now I’m a writer, an editor, and an away-from-Brevity-too-long-blogger. It’s been a battle to manage my time: in some ways, the immediacy of “Be at rehearsal at 7, we open in two weeks” is a lot easier than “Write 1000 words today. Or just 300 good ones. Or maybe do some research…Which project are you working on again?”
That comfort, plus loving Shakespeare, plus being a huge ham, is probably why I auditioned for Macbeth, thinking to myself I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, I’ll probably be a witch (again!), it’ll be something fun to do a couple nights a week.
Instead, the director made it an all-female cast and gave me the title role. Let’s just say I spent a lot on take-out and didn’t get much writing done. I also learned to play a man–I live in Dubai, where casting Mac and Lady Mac as a power lesbian couple is not an option. Myself and Macduff (the other dude in the play with an onstage wife) put on makeup and facial hair every night. I wore a shirt and tie, man-jeans, and yes, stuffed my groin. In case you care, I dressed to the right. But the biggest help was the shoes. Big, solid oxford brogues, half a pound each, with a blocky inch of heel. I put in lifts to get another inch and suddenly I was a man of average height instead of a medium-height woman. A man who didn’t care how loud he walked.
I took longer steps. I shook hands hard, and softened my grip with ladies. I touched people without their permission and interrupted everyone but my boss. I manspread. The show was set in modern Dubai, and the audience followed actors through the venue to different rooms set up as boardrooms and bedrooms and banquet halls. Between the official Shakespeare scenes, actors stayed in their settings, improvising in modern language. The audience chased us upstairs and around corners. After murders, I wiped my bloody hands on their pants. One night I held the door to the elevator, barking at guests, “Hustle! I’m not holding this door for my health!”
That was my dad talking.
That’s why he barked. He had someplace he needed us to be. He was afraid we wouldn’t get there if he left us behind. And this is how that felt.
Lady Macbeth spends most of Act 1 Scene 7 telling Macbeth, “If you were a real man, you’d kill the king. If you were a real man, I’d love you.” I walk out with the knife she’s brought me and hover over sleeping King Duncan, terrified of murder but desperate to please her, to make her look at me with the same joy I imagine she used to.
That’s the way I treated my ex-husband. As if nothing was enough, as if I got to define what it meant to be a man, and measure him. And this is how that felt.
There’s power in stepping into someone else’s shoes. When we say, “Write the truth. Don’t make yourself the hero. Don’t make your mother/ex/lover the villain–ask why they did what they did, and show the reader that, too,” that’s what we mean. Not just explaining kindly that they meant well. Not just quoting the defense they yelled at us too many times. But walking in their world and looking with their eyes. Seeing what they saw–however twisted, however rationalized, but taking a moment to think it through and agreeing to believe them. There’s plenty of time to show the reader our side, why they were wrong/lying/horrific, show why we survived, why we deserved to win. But victory is sweeter when it was in doubt. Survival is more meaningful when it’s fraught with conflict, when we’re still questioning, Was I right to react that way?
Memoirs of settled fact (according to the writer) are autobiographies. Chronicles of history, not gripping stories of human folly and triumph. The best books lead us down a winding path and make us wonder how it will turn out, if we can trust the narrator, were they truly right? Reward the reader with heroism and relief at the end. But through the murky middle, show us the moments when the paths not taken looked a lot like the right choice. Show them how that felt.
December 15, 2016 § 5 Comments
A few days ago, I heard a writer read the first five pages of his brand-new manuscript in process, the first book he has ever tackled. It wasn’t the time to point out issues, it was the time for encouragement. Keep writing. You can do it. Don’t judge the first draft, just get it on the page.
But there were some issues. The same issues I see in most writers’ first drafts–often in my own first drafts. And the biggest issue was summarizing. We’ve all heard “show don’t tell,” and we all have some level of understanding what that means. But it’s hard to recognize and root out of our own work explanations that don’t serve the narrative.
One way to track down telling? Look for summaries.
He told her about the day he’d had, that he’d seen his boss and asked for a raise.
They met by moonlight and exchanged vows of eternal love.
If I were editing this imaginary book, I’d comment on the first sentence, “Can you write this as dialogue?” and on the second, “Can you write this as a scene?” These two comments end up in almost every manuscript I edit. They are so common, I have them set up as text-expanders. Just as we type “omw” and our phone helpfully texts “On my way!” I can type “wtd” or “wts” and pop out these key comments. (I have a number of text-expanders–my favorite is the very useful, “It’s hard to tell what this means–these words aren’t effectively carrying out your intention here,” which expands from “wtf.”)
Yes, there are times when summaries are useful. If we’ve just come out of the chapter where Prabhat has asked his boss for a raise and she threw a fax machine at him, we might open the next chapter with “He told her about the day he’d had.” Though I’d still push for Prabhat walking through the door on “I asked.” and rubbing his bruised head.
Think about the movie of your book in your head. Are you watching a scene play out in a location with people taking actions and talking to each other? Or are you hearing the protagonist’s voice, I told Ruth about the day I had, that I’d seen my boss and asked for a raise. I hoped she’d understand, but she said I deserved it and she was going home to her mother, narrating a silent movie or a series of snapshots?
“Show don’t tell” doesn’t mean “describe everything,” as Joshua Henkin points out in Writer’s Digest. We don’t need all the furniture in the room. But first-draft summaries can often be treated as shorthand. We use descriptions of scenes and summaries of dialogues as placeholders, both consciously and as writing habits, and it’s much easier to revise a first draft than to work from a blank page. But whether it’s a narrative summary or your note to yourself-as-writer, PUT KITCHEN SCENE HERE WHERE THEY FIGHT AND SHE GOES HOME TO MOTHER, hunt down summaries in later drafts. When a character tells another character about something that happened somewhere else at another time, when you catch He explained that… and They discussed… and I told them… with no quotation marks in sight, mentally read those as:
“Scene to be written here.”
“This will eventually be dialogue.”
Consider them your own text-expanders.
Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast and recently recorded the webinar, Developmental Editing for Fiction and Memoir, now available from Editors Canada.
November 15, 2016 § 10 Comments
The hare finally woke from his nap. “Time to get going!” And off he went faster than he had ever run before! He dashed as quickly as anyone ever could to the finish line, where he met the tortoise, patiently awaiting his arrival.
An author I work with sent me another draft of a scene from a book she’s writing. I sent it back with more notes, for the third time. She wrote:
I love diving in deeper and hearing where things can get amped up. Am only worried it will take another year to edit the book if I do this for each scene 😉
She’s probably right. It may well take a year. Yes, some writers write much faster. But for most of us, polishing each element of our book–scene by scene, character by character, sentence by sentence–takes time. Time at the page. Time ruminating while walking, or gardening, or staring into space. Time away from the book and working on something else. Time at our day job, where one day someone says something in the break room that snaps a recalcitrant plotline into place. Time absorbing the world.
I wrote her back that yes, it’s time-consuming,
…but bear in mind that right now you’re also learning more about writing, and everything you learn will go much faster on the next round! Plus, material at the beginning of the book goes slower than the end, because things are being set up and you’re building the world. And as a human functioning in the real world, you’re probably already changing how you look at things and record details in your head, and being more aware of what makes a scene/character/world will speed up your process, too.
It’s worth remembering those things for my own work. Every time I write–whether a blog post, an essay, a memoir, a how-to book or a novel, I learn more about writing. The lessons from failed work, bad drafts and trashed sentences inform the next attempt. The end of a book may not be “fast” in terms of creative choices, but it’s definitely faster to finish typing a project than it is to start from an empty page. And certainly, as a human moving through the world, I’m noticing more of what physical situations and gestures trigger my judgment, so that I can “show instead of telling” on the page.
It’s OK if it takes ten years–or twenty!–to finish a book. Great work is often made with care. Right now, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) sees more than a million writers around the world tearing through a first draft. Agents dread December: it’s Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Inbox Hell, as enthusiastic writers skip the all-important revisions and multiple drafts in their eagerness to share their work with the world.
That doesn’t mean don’t finish a novel in a month, or “don’t write fast.” But if you are a slower writer, or have finished a first draft, allow yourself the patience to let your work blossom both from your tending and your absence. Trust that building a network of literary support also happens one meaningful interaction at a time. That being open to the world for inspiration also sometimes includes shutting down, putting up our shields, and listening to our inner voices for a while. In our most recent Brevity Podcast, Andre Dubus III says it takes him five years to write a book–during that time, he shows it to no-one.
I am over 40. I see round-up lists of exciting new (always young) authors and it hurts to know I have missed that window. It’s weird to be both proud of a published book and sad that it’s not the book I thought I’d publish first. I’m a tinkerer, and tend to move slowly through a draft, revising as I go, rather than tearing through to the end and then going back. It’s hard to see friends finishing November with 50,000 words and realize that I have some blog posts and most of another how-to book and five more pages of novel but nothing is done. But the difference between a parable and real life is that the tortoise and the hare can both win at their own speed. I’m tempted to say “I hope” after that, but finishing a book is not a hope. It’s something I can control, and the only choice is whether or not to be OK with the time it takes me.
See you at the finish line.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the host of the Brevity Podcast.
October 6, 2016 § 9 Comments
“Ready to submit” rarely means “doesn’t need any more revisions.” Thankfully, most literary journal editors are able to help refine accepted work until a piece is the best it can be. I’ve gone back and forth for word choices, tonal missteps, and fact-checking/legal ass-covering. Sometimes a magazine accepts a piece with tremendous potential they think is worthy of a deeper edit to become publishable.
It’s often a pleasure to dive back into a “finished” piece with the help of fresh eyes, and fix tiny moments–or even giant structural issues–holding the essay back. It’s also natural to feel defensive, even hurt, when receiving edits. Natural enough that when I send an editorial letter to an author, I always include,
Remember, you don’t have to agree with my diagnosis of a particular problem, but it’s worth examining the section to see if you think it’s a different problem or one that should be solved in a different way.
Even with my longtime editor who has massaged some of my favorite work into being, my process still includes a sulking day before begrudgingly starting the next draft. But then the feeling changes. I have moments of Yeah, I thought I’d paper over that, but I didn’t, and Oh, yes, that will be better!
It’s almost always worth sucking up hurt feelings and moving forward, even if taking a perverse pleasure in rewriting differently from the editor’s suggestions.
Sometimes it’s not worth it.
What if you think an editor doesn’t “get” your piece? If you’ve received edits that make you think, Did you agree to publish the piece I wrote, or the piece you would like me to have written? How can you distinguish wounded author feelings from genuine incongruence of vision?
Don’t be precious. Every writer will be edited someday. Editors do their best to help you realize your vision, but they also need your piece to fit their magazine. Take a day or two to breathe, and come back to revisions in a hopeful mood. You know how your friend shows you their finished essay and you can still see improvements? That’s where you are right now. Let yourself be OK with it. Writing is a process, and editing is part of it.
Weigh the benefits. Where are you in your publication career? How much money is involved? What about prestige? Where are you with this piece? If the New Yorker wants edits, I will be lining up with the scalpel or the axe, whichever they decree. If I’m being paid mass-media rates, or writing work-for-hire, fine, let’s chop and change, no skin off my nose as long as the check clears. If I’ve been submitting this piece for months, maybe this editor finally figured out what’s holding it back. Those trade-offs are harder if the journal is smaller or lesser-known, if they don’t pay even an honorarium, or if the essay is brand-new/without previous rejections.
Phone a friend. Determine your level of touchiness vs. the usefulness of the edits by showing a trusted writer friend. Where do they agree? Where do they shake their head and say hmmmm, I don’t know about that one? Do they agree where the issues are, even if not what they are?
Due diligence. Look up the editor. What have they written? Do you think it’s good? What writing have they championed on their social media? Do you like their taste? Read more of the magazine. Can you see your work fitting in, or is there a disconnect in tone, style, mood, voice, structure or content?
It takes two to make a bargain. As writers, we often feel powerless to influence the publication of our work, and grateful for any opportunity. But not every opportunity is the right one. If this is your dream venue, then even a heavily edited piece is a foot in the door and a nice credit. If not, and you’ve truly confronted your own reflexive defensiveness, and genuinely considered the points made, it’s OK to withdraw your piece. Send a polite note, and take the blame on yourself. You’re out of time this month for the work this journal deserves. The piece needs a bigger rewrite than you’re able to attempt right now. You’ll submit another time with a piece that’s farther along.
I got some edits recently I disagreed with. I gave it 48 hours. I showed two writer-friends for their input on what feedback seemed most useful. I went through and responded to each comment from the editor. Then I sent that back to a friend to make sure I didn’t sound snippy.
A second round of edits came. From the email, the editor had indeed found me snippy (sorry! I really did try!). I still didn’t agree with the edits. I sent the piece to a writer who didn’t know me well (less context to paper over problems) and asked her to specifically address questions the editor had. The new suggestions didn’t hit the same points–but they did give me the Oh, yes, that will be better! feeling.
Then I realized I’d spent six hours agonizing over a piece I wasn’t going to be paid for, for a magazine I didn’t know much about. That they’d seen something in my work I didn’t see, and I wasn’t able to find their point of view. They weren’t wrong, or horrible people–we just had different visions for the essay. And sending an email to withdraw felt like Oh yes, that will be better!
Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.
September 1, 2016 § 12 Comments
All professional dancers take ballet. Even this guy. It’s the foundation of their physical training, and it’s a particularly precise and detailed style of movement. Once a dancer understands and embodies the concepts of ballet, it’s considerably easier to master other styles of dance. The language of ballet weaves through other dance styles–while staggering through a 3-week residency with the choreographer Reggie Wilson (I was there as a scholar/researcher, but we all took morning class), I watched as he demonstrated sixteen complex counts, the feet coming from Haitian religious dance, the hips from a ringshout with a dash of Martha Graham. “What are the arms?” one girl asked. Reggie tossed over his shoulder, “Oh, it’s just port de bras fifth-fourth-third, alternate arabesque but en de dans.”* Everyone else in the room briefly nodded, and then they all did it, because they knew exactly what he was talking about.
All writers should take playwriting. I’m biased–my MFA is in playwriting, my undergrad in Theatre, and I spent ten years as an actor/creator/director. But the more I practice nonfiction, the more I realize that playwriting is the foundation of my work. Here’s why:
Better dialogue. When written dialogue is the only thing you have control over (directors often ignore stage directions to make their own interpretation of a play), the playwright must write to not only convey information but show emotional content. The writer doesn’t dictate how actors read lines, so if you want “angry,” the words out of their mouths had better take them there.
Show don’t tell. Everything in a play must be shown. While Our Town is still a masterpiece, very rarely can anyone else get away with onstage narration. If you want information on stage, it must be in a scene. There’s no explaining the characters’ world–they have to interact with it until it’s clear. Backstory (“exposition”) is death on stage, because it’s someone talking at the audience about stuff the character already knows, rather than taking an action. And if your actors realize they are delivering exposition, they will start…
Questioning the writing. Yes, we receive feedback in our writing workshops, but it’s a whole new level of pain/wonder to hear your work read aloud, then listen to the people who read it have a vigorous discussion about why big chunks of it aren’t working and what they don’t understand. And how often does a writer see their characters get up and act out the dialogue? It’s the fastest way to understand which parts made sense in your head…and your head only. Which brings us to:
Fast turnaround. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t like the feedback. There’s another rehearsal tomorrow night and you’d better show up with new pages that solve the problem somehow, or the same actor will give the director the same exasperated look and sigh, “I still don’t know why my character is in this scene.”
Desperation is the mother of creativity. You want Mount Everest. The theatre’s budget is $39000 and that has to pay 12 people for nine weeks on top of the set and costumes budget. How your vision comes to life means collaborating, letting other people pollinate your ideas, and opening space in your vision for their contributions. (For the record, playwright Jamie Pachino’s Everest/artist loft/teenage girl’s room turned out amazing.) Fortunately…
Dramaturgs are amazing. Most new plays headed for production have a dramaturg–the writer’s advocate, coach, and sounding board. So when you get a pile of notes from the director, questions from the actors, and comments from audience members that contradict everything else you heard, you have a specific person whose job it is to sort through the feedback with you. They’ll help you figure out which feedback is useful to your intention and what may be valid but irrelevant, or not useful, or based on a different interpretation of the play. They’ll help you focus on what needs to be addressed first, which scenes can be given another shot before making big changes. But most of all:
Playwriting is about structure. The vast majority of plays focus on clear character arcs. The protagonist has a problem, or lives in an untenable situation. They must take actions to seek a specific goal. They must change on the way to that goal. And we must clearly know if they have succeeded or failed. Playwrights do write other structures, but it’s usually a specific choice to work with a different arc, and they plot it out just as thoroughly as a more-traditional structure. Everyone’s character arc has to make sense, and there’s a person playing that character who will be paying attention to whether or not it does (and often inventing imaginary details to pad out their personal concept of the character).
What makes playwriting great is a mix of process and product–which is why I recommend taking a playwriting class, preferably one that involves actors reading your work aloud, rather than just reading a book (although that’s a good start!). Spending so much time in dark rooms hearing people question my work, watching them act it out, having coaches who I knew had my back, and focusing intensely on structure has given me a specific set of tools and techniques that I can choose to employ. They’re precise. They’re detailed. And they are the foundation of all my work.
*I have no idea what Reggie actually said, because I don’t speak that language and I was clearly a baby rhino among gazelles, but you get my drift.
Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.
August 30, 2016 § 14 Comments
Many of us write a memoir or a personal essay after, around, or during a dramatic event in our lives. Cancer. Death of a loved one. Running a marathon. Climbing Everest. And many memoirs and essays remain unpublished because a dramatic event isn’t enough.
Think about it–any newspaper front page is covered in dramatic situations, worthy of reporting but mostly conveying information. The emotional reaction of the reader is grounded in their own experience meeting the facts, rather than empathy for the protagonist, or a desire to see them “win.”
Car Crash Claims Three
is a dramatic situation. It’s not a dramatic journey unless the reporter goes for a larger picture, and the larger picture has to include a protagonist taking a dramatic action.
Crash Claims Three: Earnhardt Jr. Vows to Race Again
Crash Claims Three: Candidate Introduces Traffic-cam Bill
Where memoirists often get stuck is finding their own dramatic action. The situation felt incredibly dramatic while we were in it, because we were navigating the hundred small actions it took to get through every day. But in retrospect, what do they all add up to?
By figuring out the dramatic action within a story, writers can answer the “So what?” question–what should a reader get from this beyond an awareness of my personal life? This allows the writer to create a dramatic structure more compelling than the tragedy/triumph of the event itself. Their own story does the work, instead of the reader’s personal connection to the larger situation. For example, it is very, very difficult to write about the Holocaust as memoir–there’s so much inherent drama in the event itself that a writer will have a very hard time telling a smaller, more personal journey without being overshadowed by the actual events.
One of the reasons The Diary of a Young Girl works is that it’s not really about the Holocaust–it’s about a bunch of people forced to live in a small space and try to get along, from the perspective of a young girl coming of age. Anne Frank mentions very little about the events happening in the Netherlands and Europe around her–only the direct impact on her daily life. It’s much more dramatic to hear that Miep couldn’t get in today to bring food from the perspective of a hungry person, and fill in the horrors to come ourselves, than to be told how dreadful the Nazis are. We already know that part.
If one is, say, an abused child, that sucks. But the hard cold reality is that abused children have already been written about by some of the best writers in the world. Even our own honesty can be undermined by the subject of child abuse in general–no matter how bad we’ve had it, someone’s read worse in Readers’ Digest. We’d better be a damn good writer to have anything new to say about abused children at all, plus the perspective to tell a story rather than recount an experience. Stories have larger points beyond “this happened to me.” Those larger points are what allow the reader who hasn’t experienced the same event to bond with the protagonist and want to be on this journey with them.
When figuring out one’s own dramatic journey, it can be useful to ask if the dramatic event is the climax of the story, the kickoff, or the antagonist. Running a marathon could be the end of a triumphant journey, an incitement to a new way of life, or the condition of physical hardship that keeps the narrator working toward a larger goal. Knowing the place of the dramatic event guides the writer to examine their own journey: What led me to this event? What did this event start me doing? How did I navigate this event?
If your essay or memoir were a movie, what’s the summary you’d tell someone to get them to watch it with you? Chances are it’s not “cancer,” or “Everest” or “running a marathon.” It’s the story of what you did after, or to get there, or along the way.
Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her next book, Self-Edit Like a Pro, comes out October 15th.