February 24, 2022 § 30 Comments
Last month I responded to 113 essays and book beginnings. A fraction of what a literary magazine might see in submissions; a lot for me to comment on. Nobody got a form rejection, because the pages were for a webinar—What’s Wrong with this Work: Turning Rejections into Publications—and the learning was the point. The authors listed their previous rejections from literary magazines, mass media, websites and agents, as many as 35 rejections for a single essay.
I hadn’t expected so many submissions. About 50 had arrived, and I’d been on a roll, picking pieces to edit live while screen-sharing during the webinar, and thought “Sure, I can do one comment on everyone!” Then the coordinator sent a reminder email. I wasn’t publicly committed to 113 responses—officially, I needed 2-5 volunteers—but I’m glad I plowed through them all, because I needed to know this and so do you:
It’s probably not your writing.
By “your writing” I mean sentence-level prose. The ability to frame a paragraph, write a rounded character, show setting and imply backstory. Almost every essay was well-written, from competently to marvelously. I only told two writers: “Consider working with a writing group or taking a class to improve your craft—your story is bigger than your ability to tell it right now.”
So why were they getting rejected? For that matter, why are you? And what can you do about it?
Many well-written pieces made a good point but didn’t say anything new. Writing about the pandemic, cancer, addiction, aging parents or cultural racism? Your angle must be something we haven’t heard many times before—and/or your writing must be incredibly moving or incredibly funny. The world doesn’t want another “sorry about being a white lady” piece. Sorry.
For memoirs, most opening pages lacked cultural relevance. How does your story intersect with the larger world now? What makes your book more than a family album?
Fix this: Read widely in the publication you want to be in and in your genre. What’s already being talked about? How can you add to the conversation? Make your fresh angle or new insights clear from the first page.
Many essays with strong concepts lacked a dramatic arc. The stakes weren’t clear. A series of observations showed another person’s character, or the narrator retold past events without a clear choice in the present. “Slice of life” pieces portrayed a particular family or group, but read as charming collections of characters rather than a personal journey for anyone.
Fix this: Ask of your essay, “What’s my state at the beginning? What’s my state at the end? What made me change and where in the essay does that moment of realization happen?” If you can’t put your finger on a sentence showing change, you don’t have a story.
Style of Writing/Where It Was Submitted
Literary essays had been rejected by mass media. Essays with the style and tone of mass media had been rejected from literary magazines. I could see why the authors were confused—they had strong writing and great stories! But they were trying to wear a ballgown to change the oil. Great dress, wrong place.
Fix this: Pick three recent pieces from your chosen publication. Analyze paragraph by paragraph. Where is the premise established? What’s an active scene and what’s imagery or reflection? Does the writer give advice, tell personal anecdotes, reference needed cultural change? That’s mass media. Crying at the end but you’re not sure why? Literary all the way. Now analyze your own work: do you see similar components to the published pieces?
When too many names, places or events show up in the first few paragraphs, the reader gets confused before they get oriented. They’re trying to track who or what will be important, and they don’t yet have the background to care about anyone.
Fix this: Count the nouns. Seriously. People, places, things. How many concrete things are in your opening? If there are more than three proper nouns, three objects or one location, make sure you have a specific reason to put them there…and that it’s working.
Opening with Death
I’ve seen many memoirs open with a loved one’s death, then flashback to fill in the story. But we don’t know why the person you’re mourning matters! You’re asking the reader to attend a stranger’s funeral and fully empathize with the chief mourner.
Fix this: The death was a big event…but this is still your story. Where does your journey begin? Start there.
Not many magazines take essays over 5000 words, and not many readers want to soldier through one. Most mass media essays are 900-2000 words, with the sweet spot around 1500. Most literary magazines take work up to about 25 double-spaced pages. Over 5000 words is long for personal essay that’s not deeply researched or culturally situated, and you’ll probably need previous publication credits in big-name, similar journals, or even a shorter piece in the same magazine.
Fix this: If your story’s big, make a choice: either tell sections of it in a couple of shorter essays; or write the whole book.
Rejection is often not “bad writing.” Often, the submission is a mismatch with the venue, the opening is muddy or the overall point isn’t clear, or someone’s narrating their family album. You can fix this. Why not pick your favorite piece without a home, and fix it now?
Want more of Allison’s writing advice? Join the upcoming webinar Writing Memoir for YA and Middle Grade, with tips and techniques for learning the market, writing a captivating memoir, and getting published.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
February 10, 2022 § 38 Comments
By Heidi Croot
They’ll respond with a quick “yes” because they’ll want to please you.
Then the inevitable panic will bloom in their eyes. A vigorous throat clearing across the phone line. A dust-up of confusion in their email.
“Um, what is a beta reader supposed to do exactly?”
Of the eighteen people I asked to test-read my memoir manuscript—fellow writers, psychotherapists, friends, and family members (including my aunts and uncle who appear frequently in its pages…read about that here)—only three knew from experience what they were saying yes to.
The rest needed help. And I was eager to provide it, knowing the more they gained clarity and confidence, the more I stood to reap constructive insights.
Hence the “Beta Reader Guidelines,” a one-pager I developed to guide willing but inexperienced people in what to notice and mention as they turn my pages.
Below, my template, which I offer to Brevity Blog readers and fellow striving writers to adapt and use as you see fit, with my heartfelt good wishes for the success of your writing project.
Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada, and is working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity blog, Linea magazine, Writescape, the WCDR anthology Renaissance, and elsewhere. You can reach Heidi at twitter.com/heidicroot.
What is the Role of a Beta Reader?
Thank you for helping me work out the kinks and make the book better!
First thing to know…
This page is meant to offer a menu of suggestions, in the event you’ve never been a beta reader before and are unsure how to proceed. Pick and choose what resonates or go entirely your own way.
Second thing to know: please respond by…
…a month after receipt. If this is not possible, please let me know quickly so I can find a replacement.
The best way you can help…
- Be a finder, not a fixer. The beta reader’s job is to highlight problem areas (nothing is sacred); the writer’s job is to fix them (but by all means, share ideas if they occur).
- Be honest and straightforward. A useful technique is to offer feedback in the form of questions.
- Pay attention to your body as you read: it will signal enjoyment or frustration.
- Choose how to send me your feedback: You can a) mark up pages in the manuscript; b) use an online revision tool; c) write a note with your comments and page numbers; or d) call or zoom.
As you read, please mark where…
- you have to read something twice to get it
- the dialogue doesn’t sound natural
- the facts are wrong (e.g. dates, timelines, behaviour theory)
- something is repeated, redundant, contradictory, sloppy
- you notice continuity problems (e.g. inconsistencies in how people, places, beliefs are described)
As you read, please mark where…
- your attention stalls, you’re bored, you’re skimming pages (because it’s saggy and dull; you’re asking why is this section even in here; you’ve lost that “what’s going to happen next” feeling)
- you’re especially engaged by a sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter: it stands out, you laughed or cried
- you feel a spike of annoyance, such as when something…
- is hinted at, or dangled, but you’re made to wait too long
- doesn’t seem to fit with what has gone before; e.g. is out of character
- is misleading
- lacks fair-mindedness; e.g. is unnecessarily judgmental
Your thoughts about the narrator
- What is her prime goal? Do you have a good sense of what she wants and fears early enough in the book?
- Why do you trust or distrust the narrator?
- What makes you like or dislike the narrator?
- Over the course of the book, how does she change, how does she grow, what does she learn?
- Is her “voice” (tone, style, use of language, personality) consistent throughout?
- What is your big-picture impression of the book?
- Did the first chapter “hook” you; i.e. make you want to keep reading?
- Did the last chapter satisfy you?
- Did the book show you something new, did you have an “aha” moment, do you think about certain things in a different way?
- Does this book remind you of anything else you’ve read?
- Would you recommend the book to a friend (i.e. someone who enjoys memoir)?
I appreciate your time and look forward to your feedback!
April 13, 2021 § 5 Comments
Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe you give each other live feedback, maybe you write it down, maybe both. And maybe, each time you look over your marked-up pages, you think:
Well…Bob certainly added a lot of commas…
Wow…Jane left like 30 comments. Now I feel bad I only gave her 4…
Cindy, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means…
“Enjoyed reading”? I made thoughtful comments on every one of your pages and I get back “Enjoyed reading”?!?!?
And yet, a writing group is still a great place for critique without spending a fortune on professional editing or getting an(other) MFA. How can you make your group effective for each writer?
Set clear ground rules.
Ask writers what they need.
Deliberately apply not only the feedback you got, but the feedback you gave.
Ground rules: Ever spent 22 minutes on one person’s pages and 7 on another’s? Ever needed big-picture feedback but got proofreading? Establish specifically what the group is going to do. If you have a defined leader, ask them for guidelines (they might feel weird about imposing rules unless you ask). If your group is egalitarian, bring it up yourself: “Hey, can we set a timer to give each person about the same amount?”
Set expectations for the amount and type of feedback. Frustrated with the number of comments you’re getting versus those you’re receiving? Ask! “Hey, am I overdoing it? I’m leaving 15-20 comments on y’all’s work, and I’m getting back 2-3. Is my feedback overwhelming or should I be asking you all for more?” Then you’ll know—do you need to ease off, are they slacking/unaware, or do you need a more rigorous group?
Ask what they need: For live feedback, you could choose the Liz Lerman critical response model, in which you ask, “Do you want to hear a thought on X?” The artist responds that yes, they do, or sorry, no, they aren’t working on that right now.
Control your own feedback by asking for what you need. Write at the top of your submitted pages, or say when it’s your turn, “Today I need to hear whether the sequence of events makes sense, and where I could add more tension. Please don’t bother to proofread or fix punctuation—I’m not at that stage.”
If you’re new to a group, try for at least one comment every other page, plus 3-5 sentences of your overall impressions at the end. Comment on what’s working as well as what isn’t. Be specific, and ask questions rather than dictating answers:
I’m getting that she’s a spy, from the radio she’s carrying, but then she says she’s just a mom—is that her cover?
Should we think he’s a jerk from stealing the bike? How much time will we spend with him in the rest of the book?
Then see what everyone else gives you and calibrate accordingly, or follow the example of the writer you think gives the most helpful feedback.
Particularly if you’re in a group of writers widely different in experience or skill, feedback often says more about the giver than the words. Pay attention to what each person says about everyone else’s work. If you think they’re off-base about another writer’s pages, take their advice with a grain of salt. If you find yourself agreeing with Janet that yeah, Sally’s pages lack a clear dramatic action, take Janet’s feedback more seriously on your own work.
Apply the feedback: Write down the verbal feedback and read your marked-up pages. If you agree and feel excited, get in there and revise. If you’re confused or unhappy, take a couple days, then go back and see what your critics agreed on. Chances are those places are worth your attention. But don’t just use the feedback you got—apply the feedback you gave, too!
Spotting problems in someone else’s writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like someone walking into the emergency room with a pickaxe in their skull. You don’t need to put them in the X-ray machine to spot the problem. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our pages and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.
Approach it like an assignment:
This seems like backstory—we know they’re hiking, when does something happen?
I count 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.
Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.
Pick one of the problems you critiqued and look for it in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Does a word or sentence pattern stick out?
Writing groups can be frustrating, maddening, time-consuming…and incredibly helpful. For free. So grab your writing buddies and use your words. You’ll all be better writers for it.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She loves her writing group. You could meet your future writing buddies at the Rebirth Your Writing: Craft & Publishing Intensive May 16-20, as well as improving your platform, learning to query, and polishing your writing skills. For essayists, memoirists and novelists!
July 25, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Peter Amos
I tried to read David Foster Wallace again. I also have a college friend who listens to Paganini for pleasure, a cousin who likes fried egg on his bacon cheeseburger, and a coworker who swears by the ‘cronut.’ Wallace mania is similar. I have nothing against him. It’s just a little much for me. I’m more the type for Palestrina, red onion and swiss, or sesame with butter (coffee light and sweet).
My favorite writers rotate daily, but Joan Didion and George Orwell border on obsession. I want to write like they do. I love plain language. Simple sentences sparkle with magic, no matter the complexity of the idea. Orwell never uses two words when one will do. Miles Davis moves blocks of silence around. Brevity is, in point of fact, a byproduct of vigor. The obvious problem is that I’m long-winded. The deeper problem is that I’m bad at editing.
My dad is an English teacher and suggested I read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing. It’s a bizarre little book, alternately cryptic and remarkably direct. To Klinkenborg, the sentence is foundational. Creative vocabulary languishes in a shoddy sentence. Tricks of the trade bend and buckle when the glue is weak. He suggests writing only sentences; not grouping them in paragraphs, but treating each separately. He forms them mentally, editing in real time and revising out of order and context. If a sentence stumbles without its neighbor, it has no business on the page.
I’ve tried my hand at burning dinner, juggling a soccer ball, and separating the roots of baby tomato plants. The secret to getting better is often learning to enjoy the task. Enjoying it often requires getting better. It’s circular, but generally true. If I enjoy what I do, I’ll improve a bit and enjoy it more. If I grit my teeth and get better, I’ll have fun and the improvement accelerates.
I got a bit better at editing and it’s extraordinarily satisfying. I delete the painfully clever sentence that doesn’t quite fit and I never look back. As I strip out the dust and refuse, the thing changes meaning. It’s like carving the form of a bird’s nest from a block of wood and sanding it into the shape of a mockingjay. In general, it’s no surprise that a bird hides in a nest but it feels like sorcery.
Of course editing is a thing you do, and work evolves. But I’ve always thought that adding words changed meaning and removing them clarified what was already there. Maybe there’s no difference. Some critics argue that art is what it is; words are words and color is color. Klinkenborg puts it differently. Meaning can’t be separated from the words. A bird is a bird regardless of the metal that makes the cage. But writers don’t capture an idea under a crosshatch of letters and spaces. Not just any word will do. The words are the idea and when I change them, even slightly, the meaning changes too. A verbal uncertainty principle. I can’t paraphrase an idea without changing it.
It sounds like voodoo until a draft lies in scraps on the parquet floor. I pluck a word from a sentence, trade a weak clause for something compact, and shrug. Three times, five times, ten times, a hundred and I’m staring at an idea I never noticed rattling around in my head. What remains is unfamiliar.
Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia. The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.
February 1, 2018 § 27 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.
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 22, 2016 § 8 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).
October 13, 2016 § 5 Comments
The first episode of Brevity’s podcast came out this week, and it’s amazing how many people it took to put together what sounds like simply a recorded conversation. As well as the author and the host, there’s also a tape-logger, who transcribes significant quotes and summarizes the conversation in between as a guide for editing; and an audio editor who removes “um’s” and makes everyone sound smarter, as well as shaping the interview and making judgment calls on what tape to keep and what to let go.
That’s the hardest part–the judgment calls. Forty-five minutes with Thaddeus Gunn became 12, and 90 minutes with Dani Shapiro condensed to 45. Thoughtful, well-spoken guests are a blessing and a curse.
If you’re working in narrative non-fiction or journalism, or putting together an essay that includes someone’s personal story or a conversation, it can be hard to narrow down what you want to keep. And if you’re the writer talking about your book or your process, it’s hard to stay on track. But there are some easy ways to get what you need, as interviewer or interviewee.
If you’re the person of interest:
- Use complete sentences. It’s much easier to edit tape, or quote you in an article, if you respond with a discrete unit.
Q: How did you get started writing?
A: My mom gave me a pencil when I was five.
A: I started writing when I was five, after Mom gave me a pencil for Christmas.
The second answer can open an article; the first one needs context, and context burns up word count.
- Have an idea of what you want to get out there, and practice in advance. That doesn’t mean “rehearse” or have a set speech, which can sound phony even coming from professional actors. But know what you care about, and while you’re in your car, or taking a walk, ask yourself imaginary questions and frame a few different ways to answer them. I was on TV often in my former profession of circus performer, and every single interviewer asked how I got started fire-eating. It was useful to have two or three clever, short, easy-to-edit answers.
- Limit your subjects. Be in-depth and meaningful about a few things rather than glib with many. Unless you’re live, they’ll edit you down later.
- Know that the interview is for you, too. It’s OK to say before you start, “I’m hoping to mention X at some point,” or “My last two interviews covered Y and I’d love to do something fresh with you–can we go in another direction?” The host/journalist wants you to be happy, because happy subjects give better interviews.
Even beginning interviewers can get good tape and good quotes:
- Allow enough time. You need/hope for at least 30% more talking time than will be in the finished piece. Your likelihood of getting that time is inversely proportional to the fame of the person you’re talking to.
- Small talk has value. It’s important to hear where your interviewee is mentally today, and listening to preliminary chat lets them know they’re being heard. They’re more likely to share things that matter if you’ve demonstrated that you value what they say.
- Shut up. It’s an old trick, but asking a question, then waiting, allows the person to frame their thoughts. Leave space at the end of their answer, and they’ll often come up with something else important. It takes everyone time to ruminate. This is good for teaching, too–leave a longer gap than feels comfortable after asking a question. Be comfortable with silence. (Practice your ‘supportive attentiveness’ face and keep it on–even in a phone call, they can feel it.)
- Ask the subject what they need. Before you start, “Is there anything you’re really hoping we’ll cover?” At the end, “Anything else you’d like to add?” Often, the best quotes and most compelling stories come when the interview is “over.”
- Be fascinated. People can tell when you’re genuinely interested. And you’ll be less nervous if you’re thinking about them. Practice this by asking strangers (in safe locations) about their lives, and trying to make them feel heard. Practice your listening face and your interview technique at parties and meals. Be the person everyone want to talk to.
- When editing an interview-based piece together, it’s better to focus on a smaller number of significant moments than to give an overview of the whole conversation. Chopping out a whole subject, or an entire set of questions, is much easier than trying to trim every section of the talk and get it all in. Leave everyone wanting more.
It helped me tremendously to rely on another person’s taste about what elements of the interview most suited the podcast. And it was way less painful to have our crack audio editor Kathryn Rose do the trimming. By the time I listened to the first draft, she’d already made some global decisions, and there were only one or two places where I said, “I miss that, can we put it back in?” If you’ve got a writer buddy to help out, share your transcript and ask them what fascinates them.
Many of us enjoy the solo element of writing. But practice your interviewing, and your own interview content. There’s an essay out there if you listen for it.
Allison K Williams is 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!