December 12, 2016 § 1 Comment
It’s time once again for the Brevity Podcast! Listen right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Episode #3 features an interview with Rick Moody on form, function, life coaching and how to handle the part of depression that makes one want to walk in front of a bus, without losing access to one’s creative spirit. We also speak with Athena Dixon, editor-in-chief and founder of Linden Avenue Lit, about where and how to find new voices of color, and the evolution of her writing from R&B fan fic to establishing a strong new literary magazine.
Our episode sponsor is the recorded webinar, Developmental Editing for Fiction and Memoir – useful for authors and editors, and available at Editors Canada (note that the price is in CDN$).
Show Notes: Episode #3 People, Books and Places
Athena’s favorite poem, Euphoria by Major Jackson
Athena’s favorite Another Bad Creation song, Jealous Girl. (The band looks like they’re about 9 years old!)
Crossroads: the story of Robert Johnson and the Devil, on Radiolab
November 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 18, 2016 § 13 Comments
You know the old saw. Tourist asks a New Yorker: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Wiseguy answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”
So, how did I get published in Brevity Magazine?
For several years, Brevity was on my list of literary venues I vowed to crack. Why?
First of all, I love reading Brevity. That’s reason enough. While I drift most naturally to writing longer essays than Brevity’s 750 word limit, over the past few years I’ve been intrigued by flash nonfiction, and have been writing more of it. To me, Brevity is the mother ship for short nonfiction. Brevity also consistently publishes writers whose work I admire; who doesn’t want to share literary real estate with the cool writing kids? Finally, once I put a publication on that “to be cracked” list (which stares at me from a whiteboard in my office), it’s game on.
Even if the game takes three years and six rejections before a Yes.
Lesson number one: Persistence.
One thing that kept me submitting was my history with Brevity—kept handy in my Excel spreadsheet—included many “nice notes”: Moved by your story…Sorry to say no to this one…Try us again…Writing is impressive, but…” As an editor at a lit journal myself, I know those salvos are only handed out when an editor means it.
Lesson number two: Believe the feedback.
Studying the rejected pieces, I saw they were all based on something pulled out of a longer work-in-progress. It’s not that I didn’t work hard at condensing/rewriting (all eventually found publishing homes). But now I understand that one big reason the accepted piece worked is that I wrote it for Brevity the first time around: it never existed as anything other than a 748 word essay.
Lesson number three: Start from scratch.
When I saw Brevity‘s themed call for works “examining lived experiences of race, racism, and racialization and the intersections between race and gender, class, dis/ability, and language,” I knew immediately what I’d write about: an incident 15 years in my past, that at times still felt lodged in my throat. I set to work immediately; I didn’t dismiss the idea before even getting started, as we writers so often do.
Lesson number four: Listen to the gut.
I tend to be an over-writer, churning out rough too-long drafts, because I’m that odd duck who loves messy brutal revision. This time, I was conscious from the start that I didn’t want to go more than 100 words over with an early draft. That helped, a lot.
Lesson number five: Shake up the process.
By the third (or was it 23rd?) draft, I experienced a familiar nah-this-stinks-forget-about-it attack. That was compounded by seriously questioning my ability to speak to the topic, which sounded like: who-am-I-kidding-who-am-I-to-write-about-race.
Then a friend asked me to read something he was considering submitting for the same issue, and that reminded me: beyond the guidelines, you can’t know precisely what editors are looking for. If you pre-reject yourself (by not even submitting), you’ve lost twice.
Lesson number six: Punch that inner critic in the teeth and carry on.
When putting the final polish on the piece, I read and re-read 15 different Brevity pieces. Yes, this is out of order; that’s the first thing a writer should do: read the journal. But I had been reading Brevity, every issue, all along. This was a double, final gut check, a slow thoughtful cruise, making sure I’d absorbed the lessons I’d learned along the way.
Lesson number seven: Read, write, repeat. (hat tip: Susan Sontag)
When I finally hit submit, it was with a mixture of familiar dread (here we go again) but also, for the first time, a hopeful sense that maybe I’d done it right this time. But then, who knows?
Lesson number eight: You can’t hit if you don’t swing. (hat tip: Dad)
When the acceptance arrived, I didn’t break into my usual dance-around-the-room jig, maybe because I was practicing a conference presentation, annoyed at myself for incorrectly ordering the slides.
Instead, I read the email on my phone, smiled, and went back to work. Because I’d submitted it exclusively, I didn’t have to navigate the tediousness of withdrawing it from other journals, or second guessing that I’d sent it to the wrong place. There was only calm, a sense of feeling both particularly lucky, and also rewarded for staying the course.
I did however visit my whiteboard list, and put a big check mark next to Brevity.
And wondered what to write next.
Lesson number nine: Rinse, repeat. (hat tip: every writer, every editor, ever)
Lisa Romeo is a New Jersey writer, editor, and writing professor. Her work is included in the Notables Essays section of Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Hippocampus, Full Grown People, The Manifest Station, and of course, Brevity. Lisa serves as creative nonfiction editor for Compose Journal, and as a review editor of scholarly works for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. Her blog offers interviews, resources, and advice for the writing community. Find her on Twitter @LisaRomeo.
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 Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast.
October 10, 2016 § 26 Comments
We’re on the air! The brand-new Brevity Podcast is now available here and on Soundcloud. We hope you’ll enjoy our first episode, featuring interviews and readings from New York Times-bestselling author and noted memoirist Dani Shapiro, and Brevity author and Pushcart Prize nominee Thaddeus Gunn.
Soon, we’ll be invading the world of iTunes, Stitcher, iCatcher, and other podcast services, but for right now, we’re right here, and downloadable for listening on the go. If your fancy technical skills involve RSS feed wrangling, here’s our feed. If you’re on Soundcloud, please do follow us.
Let us know what you think—and we’d love to hear your suggestions for future guests!
Show Notes: Episode #1 People, Books and Places
Thaddeus Gunn lives in Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in Brevity, Literary Orphans, and SmokeLong Quarterly. He has over twenty years of experience of writing for print, Web, and broadcast. He currently works for his own advertising and branding company, Goldyn Gunn, co-founded alongside Kevin Golden. Find him on Twitter @thaddeusgunn, and enjoy his Dear Gregory blog.
Thaddeus’s essay for Brevity, Slapstick
The writer of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 is Michael Arndt.
The Hemingway app (Hemingway Editor)
Dani Shapiro is the best-selling author of the memoirs Devotion, Slow Motion, and Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life. Her five novels include Black & White and Family History. Dani’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Elle, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review, and the Los Angeles Times, and has been read on NPR’s This American Life. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and Wesleyan University, and is cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. Dani is a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveler.
Martha Graham’s letter to Agnes de Mille
Philip Roth’s Patrimony
Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty
Allison K Williams hosts and produces the Brevity Podcast, and is the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.
September 29, 2016 § 29 Comments
Roz Warren writes revealing personal essays for a living. When she found out her partner had been cheating on her, intensely, intimately, for ten years, she wrote about it. Of course. At Broad Street Review, she addresses the obvious question:
Why? I’m a writer. It’s what I do. I write about everything that happens to me. It’s how I cope and how I understand my life. For years, I’ve been writing about how wonderful Mike is. He’s turned up over and over again in my essays. I told the world how funny and clever and loving he was. How I loved him. How much fun the two of us had together. I’ve even appeared on the Today show, where Savannah Guthrie interviewed me about an essay I’d written for the New York Times in which Mike was featured, being fabulous, loving, and supportive. When Mr. Wonderful turned out to have been Mr. Infidelity all along, why wouldn’t I write about that too?
Roz talks about the tiny voice she heard–a voice I’ve heard, too–when her partner admitted the affair.
“This is awful. This is devastating. And unbelievable. And hateful. And…this is amazing material.”
At moments of horrifying emotional trauma, part of my brain steps back and starts noting down metaphors. No, I’ll tell it like this–hey, remember that detail, the song you’ll always think of as the soundtrack to this moment…
Roz Warren’s partner was, not unnaturally, unhappy about her new topic. Furious, in fact. But one of her friends quoted Anne Lamott–“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people want you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
That’s how I feel, too. I also write personal essays. I also talk frankly about bad behavior. And I believe that not only is it possible to do so ethically and kindly–for a given value of “kind”–but that writing ethically makes better work. Recently, a friend who’d experienced a public, traumatic, but unintentional insult asked me, “What are your thoughts on writing something that might be unflattering to someone who will also likely read it (I’d keep them anonymous as much as possible)?”
I told her I was all for it. That I’d kept an anonymous sex blog for two years and at least three of the people I was having sex with, and with whom I shared my work, read some very unflattering things about themselves. My now-husband is the only person in my life whose privacy is more valuable to me than a story, and I still wrote a piece that included a line about our mutual pornography habits.
To my friend, I suggested some guidelines to remain ethical and kind while telling one’s own truth:
- First write it. Always write before any negotiation with yourself or anyone else. Don’t sabotage your first draft. First drafts are private.
- In a subsequent draft, make sure you are at least as harsh with yourself as you are with everyone else. How do you reconcile your own behavior with the situation or the end result? Is there anyone who deserves the benefit of the doubt? Self-hagiography is boring. Nobody wants to be told you’re the hero of your own story, and very few situations truly involve a wronged innocent.
- Make sure you’re showing instead of telling–Is the person’s behavior clear through visible action, rather from your feelings about their character?
- Figure out where you’re going to publish. If you want to maintain a good relationship, think about how much publicity may happen, and plan ahead. For example, I had limited consent to tell a story about a friend in a venue outside the friend’s orbit. The story was republished by another outlet (beyond my control) with a bigger audience. Even though it was one of my bucket-list venues, I didn’t promote it, because doing so would have brought it into my friend’s line of sight and been hurtful. Try not to publish the essay about your horrible mother in the magazine all her friends read. Shaming is for editorials.
- Remember that sharing information is not asking for permission. If you choose to tell the person you’ve written about before publication, try, “I had some complicated feelings about X and I’ve written about them. Would you like to know anything about the content before I publish it, so that you’re aware of what’s out there?” You may or may not wish to add, “I value our friendship, and I’m not mad at anyone, but I needed to process how I felt in the moment, and this is a snapshot of a particular time and place.” Then, based on what they say and who it is, you can allow them to read the actual piece, summarize the content, or summarize just the part they’re in. Think of yourself at this stage not as the writer, but as the fact-checker. It’s hard and uncomfortable to share work that’s already close to our hurt feelings with the person who hurt us, but it can deepen the piece to ask the person, “why did you do that?” and see if their stated motivation belongs in there, too. If you are already estranged, you don’t have to seek them out. You’re writing about your world, not theirs.
- Remember that not everyone wants to know. My husband has said, “there are a lot of books in the world, and that’s one I won’t be reading,” about my memoir. I’m OK with that. Respect boundaries.
A writer’s obligation is to the truth as they experience it. We should be fair, but we don’t have to stay quiet for fear of hurting feelings. As Roz Warren puts it: “I wish with all my heart that Mike had been the loving, trustworthy man I thought he was, and that I didn’t have this terrible betrayal to write about. But I do. So I am.”
Read her whole essay at Broad Street Review.
Allison K Williams is the Social Media Editor for Brevity and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.