August 2, 2018 § 27 Comments
I’m sitting at my desk, getting ready to write.
Translation: I’m checking Facebook.
I hear a rustle, followed by a sigh, and I see movement out of the corner of my eye. When I look up there is a tall, slim woman with spiky blonde hair lounging on my upholstered chaise. She is wearing black Vans, ripped jeans, and a black t-shirt with “Rabid Feminist” in white letters. Her scent is that of excellent coffee; the to-go cup she’s holding must be from the Slow Train Cafe.
“Who are you?” I ask. “How did you get here?”
“I’m your angel, Gloria. Never mind how I got here. So, how many words have you written this morning?”
“Um, I don’t do word counts. That doesn’t work for me. I just write, mostly when I’m inspired. Sometimes for a long time, sometimes not for very long.”
She snorts. “So, then, none? Zero? You haven’t written anything and it’s almost noon?”
“Wait, are you the Angel of the House that Virginia Woolf wrote about? I thought you’d be smaller, and wearing gauzy robes, with long hair in a loose knot. But if you are that angel, you should know I cleaned the refrigerator this morning.”
Gloria rolls her eyes. “Are you kidding me? This is the 21st Century. I’m here to make sure you’re writing. So, what’s the problem?”
“The fridge was really dirty. I found sticky stuff that had dried in all the ridges of the vegetable crisper. And in the fruit drawer, bits of the orange plastic mesh bags from the clementines we ate six months ago. Oh, and a couple of cat hairs. We don’t even have a cat!”
“Great. Next time write first, then clean. And now that you’ve cleaned, why aren’t you writing?”
“Well, right now, I’m composting.”
Gloria sniffs. “In your office? Why don’t I smell anything?”
“No, no, it’s a term from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s when you’re thinking about what you’re writing, but not actually writing.”
Gloria squints at me. “What’s that noise? Oh, it’s Natalie. She’s groaning at the way you’ve used her idea about the need to process some experiences before you can write about them, and turned it into a procrastination device. How many books about writing have you read, anyway?”
“Oh, I don’t know. A few.”
Gloria rolls her eyes again. “I have something for you. Catch!”
I usually miss when someone says “catch,” but this time I reach up at just the right time. It’s a good thing, too, because the object is small, but heavy and sharp.
It takes me a minute to realize: it’s a one-inch picture frame.
I smile. “Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird! Right? It’s a metaphor for focusing on one small part of a piece, instead of constantly worrying about the bigger picture.”
Gloria groans. “So, you’ve read that one, too.”
I nod. I squirm in my desk chair, hoping to block her view of the shelves behind me, which are crammed with writing manuals, collections of essays about writing, and memoirs about writing.
“So, it’s not as though you don’t know what to do,” she says. You just need to get out of your own way and write. My work here is done.”
Gloria disappears as quickly as she came. I stare at the empty chair.
Perhaps I imagined her.
As my eyes wander back to my computer screen, I read a card I’ve placed on my desk, in my line of sight. It’s a quote from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind:
And, finally, I do.
Melissa Ballard composts, checks Facebook and, occasionally, writes from her desk in Oberlin, Ohio. You can read her essays at https://melissaballardsite.wordpress.com/
February 22, 2018 § 26 Comments
A few years ago I studied at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.
They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?
I said, “But there’s this countdown…”
“Countdown to what?”
And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.
I’d spent seven years with this character and story in my head. For me, the gun was just there. Why wouldn’t it be? But it wasn’t on the page.
Editing memoir, I often see the same quirk of a major missing piece.
Dad’s an alcoholic? That’s why he acted like that? It’s not in here for the reader. Adult-writer-you might want to make that clear even if child-narrator-you is oblivious.
There’s a ton of money supporting this giant home renovation in another country. The reader wants to know at least briefly how you got it.
Wait, there was an implied sex scene after the picnic at the end of that chapter? Please write enough of it that we know it happened. Even if you just take off her shirt or stroke her hair.
It’s hard to remember all the information readers need to make sense of our story–not because there’s too much to tell, but because we already have a full background briefing. We’re sick to death of the details. We’re afraid to be too obvious, to overwrite, make our work too simple or somehow un-literary by speaking plainly.
I’ve said before, all books are mysteries. Just as if we read a whodunit where the murderer didn’t show up at all until the page before he’s caught, the reader feels ripped off if they don’t have the breadcrumbs to follow your trail. Think about re-reading a classic sleuth novel, and the pleasure of noticing all the clues you missed the first time around, how each puzzle piece falls into place, the last detail snapping into focus right at the villain’s unmasking.
Writing memoir also calls for careful clues. Show the life experience on the way to discovery of illness that shows you can fight (or are fighting for the first time), and the team of doctors, family and friends fighting with you. The hints of family history overheard as children, that now you know were secrets covered up.
It’s counter-intuitive, but don’t surprise the reader. When we reveal the hidden reasons behind our torment, or show our triumph, or beat the tumor, we want the reader instead to be shocked. Fascinated that it turned out this way, but realizing that of course that’s how the story had to end. We want our books to be heavily laden vehicles with bad brakes, rolling down hills toward brick walls. We’re shocked at the impact–but having watched the dump truck full of chickens gather speed, we’re not surprised. If the brakes suddenly worked again, stopping the truck abruptly inches from the wall, it’s still a powerful shock (plus relief!) but again, it’s not a surprise. One way or another, everything pointed to an explosion of feathers and squawks.
Take a look at your essay, or your manuscript. What’s the stunning conclusion, the revelation, the connection the reader makes at the last minute? Go back and find the clues. What logically leads to this conclusion, step by step? Is it subtle enough to still need to finish the story to find out what happens, but clear enough that a reader who doesn’t know the plot already will say, “Ohhhhhhh. Yeah. That had to happen–it’s the only way.”
The illusion in our heads is of a fully realized world, provided with every necessary action and relationship to contextualize our story. The reader only gets what’s on the page. Give them enough cards and top hats to be in on the illusion, too.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. No chickens were harmed in the writing of this post.
February 1, 2018 § 25 Comments
1. Check for “was verb-ing” constructions. In Microsoft Word, do a wildcard search:
- Open Advanced Find and Replace
- Check the box for Wildcards On
- Put this in Find, including the <> part: <was [a-z]@ing>
- Repeat with <were [a-z]@ing>
- Each time a “being verb-ing” construction pops up, ask “Is my intention here to communicate an ongoing state that is still happening?” If the answer is no, switch tenses. Was running=ran. Were talking=talked.
2. Remove most of “that.” Many writers use “that” as a tic rather than for deliberate emphasis or grammatical need. “That” adds a slight stiltedness to your natural writing voice. Again, use your trusty Find and Replace. Keep only the “thats” you need for sense.
I never considered that he would run away
I never considered he would run away.
3. Start and finish sentences with strong words. When possible, restructure sentences to begin and end with nouns or verbs rather than prepositions or filler words.
Besides all that, he was mean, kind of.
Pat was also kind of mean.
When you’re comfortable putting strong words in the anchor positions, start paying attention to the sounds. Sharp consonant sounds (d, g, k, p, etc.) make good emphatic sentences:
Pat was also kind of a dick. On Wednesdays, he threw rocks at his dog.
For more flow, choose sounds that slide into the next sentence, like m, n and s:
Pat was mean. Everyone knew about the poor dog, and what happened on Wednesdays.
4. Count prepositional phrases. Long sentences can be great. But when a sentence feels clunky, sometimes that’s due to too many prepositional phrases.
We walked down the hall on that afternoon, the birds diving into the water beneath the windows, where we’d sat last week pledging our love for one another.
Prepositional phrases navigate time and space. Each new phrase relocates the reader: down the hall, on that afternoon, into the water, beneath the window, where we’d sat, last week, for one another. It’s not just that the sentence is long–it’s that the reader mentally visits seven different locations.
5. Use a word cloud. Using an online tool like Wordle, copy-paste your whole document to create a picture of all the words you use. The words are sized according to their frequency. For over-used words (often that, just, got, around, felt, looked, like) do a search, and each time the word pops up, ask if it’s needed and if it’s the right word in that location. Edit ruthlessly. The big exception is “said” in dialogue–usually, “said” becomes a neutral word like “the,” and it’s better to use “said” than get fancy with dialogue tags.
Bonus thinking time: If there’s a “bad guy” in your story, or someone opposed to your objective, imagine the story from their POV. How are they acting heroically within their own worldview? What do they believe in? How are you thwarting them? Next time you revise, keep in mind there’s another version of the story in which your opponent is the hero. Give the reader little hints of that story, too.
Happy writing–with or without inspiration.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
November 21, 2017 § 27 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 7, 2017 § 18 Comments
Last week in my workshop on self-editing at Mid-American Review’s Winter Wheat Festival of Writing, writer Terry Korth Fischer asked a great question:
How do you stop editing as you write?
I was a little confused by this question, because that’s normally not my problem. (My problem is Ass In Chair.) But everyone else in the room nodded–How to avoid editing ourselves in early drafts? How to keep the writing flow going without second-guessing every word?
Online, there’s some common solutions to compulsive self-editing:
Turn off your monitor. I think I’d freak out and have to keep turning it on to hit “save” every minute. For fabulous touch-typists maybe?
Start each day with a fresh page–at the end of a writing session, copy the last sentence into a new document along with some instructions to yourself about what’s next. Next session, start from there.
Write with a timer. Don’t stop or go back until the timer rings. Suzanne Roberts does a variation on this: for dedicated writing time, she sets a timer for an hour. If she checks social media, gets lost in research or leaves the chair, she restarts the timer. Maybe restarting the timer on each edit could break the habit?
Write by hand. It’s harder to delete pen on paper.
…I don’t do any of those things. What keeps me from self-editing too early?
Whether we’re quitting smoking or unhealthy eating or nail-biting (guilty!), it’s hard to replace a habit with nothing. First ask, what problem is the existing habit fixing?
Our brain nags to edit because we’re afraid. Anne Lamott says,
I’d write a first draft that was maybe twice as long as it should be, with a self-indulgent and boring beginning, stupefying descriptions […] and no ending to speak of. The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.
We’re afraid if we don’t stop and fix it RIGHT NOW, it’s going to be terrible forever. How can we reassure our tiny, frightened lizard brain, “It’s OK, I’m going to come back to it, I promise”?
What works for me:
- Edit first. For ongoing projects, I spend the first 15-20 minutes reviewing yesterday’s work. Tweaking words and sentences helps me get back into the flow of the story. I rarely do a massive rewrite–if something’s pretty bad, I’ll start the scene again from a different angle, or accept the challenge to write a new scene addressing the problems in yesterday’s work.
- Work on deadline. Most of my Brevity blogs get written about two hours before going live. My newsletter stories go out bimonthly. I feel worse about being late than being imperfect.
- Placeholders. More research needed? Type LOOK UP COURT MANNERS. Not emotionally ready to dive into a memoir moment? NEED SCENE WITH MOM IN KITCHEN HERE. Sometimes I highlight the placeholder, or put XXX on either side so it’s easy to find in the next draft.
- Look ahead. The work I did yesterday can be bad–terrible, even. Because I’m not promising every word a place in the next draft. I already know I’ll be cutting whole chapters and rearranging paragraphs. That lowers the “fix it now!” urge.
- Plan to practice. Musicians painstakingly learn plenty of music they’ll never record. Artists fill pages with drawings they’ll never work on again (in fact, they have pads full of newsprint to sketch without wasting expensive paper). Dancers who don’t perform classical work still show up at the ballet barre to maintain their technique. Why should writers be exempt from skill development? Why not write pages and pages of a novel or memoir that are simply “practice” and not an early draft of something great? Why not intentionally write some essays that never get edited, that stop at a first or second draft? Every other artist spends time on foundations that don’t directly build a final piece, why should we get to skip skill development?
Whatever tips and tricks we use to stop editing as we go, it boils down to this: Let go of the dream of being perfect. Inside all our hearts is a tiny hope:
I’m going to make something beautiful, on the first try, without working very hard for it. My emotional experience and love of story will compensate for any lack of skill or coherence. I’m entitled to have my thoughts come out exactly right on the page, the first time, and as long as I’m still messing with it, it’s still the first time.
It doesn’t work that way.
We know it doesn’t.
Let it go.
Let it flow.
November 2, 2017 § 2 Comments
Not long ago I was working on a piece I was pretty sure was about the woman who founded forensic science. My editor, however, pointed out it was also about the struggles of women past a certain age, who are pegged only as grandmothers, lacking usefulness. Her comment made me realize: I usually write about the experiences of women whom society sees as past their prime. This shouldn’t have been a revelation: I write a monthly magazine column about intergenerational dialogue and have a degree in women’s history. Yet the new awareness of my specific focus has already helped me prioritize projects and pitch pieces to new outlets.
While much has been said about how writers must ‘build platform,’ in the sense of becoming a marketable expert on their book’s subject, this thematic focus seems more like a beat—that is, developing authority while writing on a number of related topics. So how do you create your beat? How can you nurture it?
Bustle writer Tabitha Blankenbiller says her beat
is fashion and style, which like any good subjects, parlay into a myriad of other themes: pop culture, body image, class issues, aging, feminism…[but] I find that when I put out fashion-related writing, it tends to be some of the better-received work. It feels like it ‘has legs.’
When she founded Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Athena Dixon embraced her editorial beat to “further diversify our current writing community by calling attention to the glaring diversity issues and offering at least one safe space for writers to submit and be read.”
Maisha Johnson has worked as a domestic violence survivors’ advocate and holds an MFA in poetry. She writes primarily about abuse and healing, race and racism, and intersectional feminism, as well as everyday ways we come across these topics, like pop culture, creativity, and identity. Articulating these intersections helps her deepen the lens and purpose of her work, and define who she is as a writer.
A writer’s beat ties into their social media presence, but isn’t just a marketing construct. Maisha says it can be equally important to unplug.
Because I work around issues like racism, trauma, and abuse, I know being constantly plugged in is going to take a toll. But also [I can’t be] totally absent from trending conversations. So I’ll use a social media tool like Hootsuite, and schedule articles I see trending from other writers. I’ll also add older [or evergreen] articles of my own that relate to the current topic. I don’t have to be on the cutting edge of every conversation in order to maintain a digital presence.
Your beat also needn’t be constantly “on.” Tabitha, whose book Eats of Eden comes out March 2018, says her beat requires
less hoop-jumping and more mountain-scaling. I am a slower writer than many freelancers I’ve known, who are churning out essays and stories along with news cycles… I can’t keep up with that pace, so when I’m writing standalones, I have the luxury of bowing to what’s really screaming at me. It may not be the hottest trending topic, but every so often you have good timing and what you’ve been obsessed about is in sync with the rest of the world.
Relevance can be serendipitous, Tabitha says.
Sometimes the fire comes totally from left field…[for example], a little essay I wrote for a now-defunct food site about my tendency to steal things like condiments, pint glasses, and steak knives from restaurants stirred up this big viral trollstorm.
For Athena, managing a beat is all about making choices: “I made a conscious decision to include all black women on my editorial board and to champion voices I believe may not be given a fair and equal chance to be published.”
How do you decide what to focus on? Maybe you already see a common thread in your work. You might make decisions based on pragmatic goals for publication in particular venues, or by paying close attention to what makes your writing flow and what works best for you and your work specifically. I jump at any opportunity even remotely related to aging, because juggling multiple projects keeps me on deadline. Maisha keeps a list of potential articles, prioritized by what she’s most passionate about.
Tabitha says, “Don’t discount what you love. Passion and joy are your greatest allies, no matter what sparks them within you.”
“Don’t be afraid to begin with what you know best, no matter how unique or particular,” Maisha says. “If you’re the only person who can write the story, that story might really need to be told.”
Athena Dixon agrees. “Be confident in what you know and share it widely. You have no idea what kinds of opportunities you may be unlocking.”
Hillary Moses Mohaupt serves as Social Media Editor for Hippocampus. She holds an MFA from Pacific University in Oregon, and her work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle and Distillations. In her fiction and essays she frequently writes about the presence of the past, intergenerational relationships, and lying. Follow her on Twitter @_greyseasky_.
October 12, 2017 § 30 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.