October 3, 2019 § 24 Comments
“Could you just look over my pages?” she asks.
I am delighted to help. She’s a good writer, I like reading her work, she’s read my work and she’ll read it again. I dive into the document and realize there’s a problem—not with her writing, which is solid, but with the dramatic structure. The book starts in the wrong place. I work through the first couple chapters, commenting as I go, editing a few errant sentences along the way, then think through ideas and questions and put them in an order I think will best help her. Everything gets typed up and emailed back.
In my inbox are four people who need information or a connection. I like them all, they all deserve my time. Send-send-send-send.
My husband asks if I’ll tape a voiceover for his company’s training video. No pay. The company has an office in a co-working space, and they have generously invited me to use the co-working space any time I want for free, so this is a no-brainer. I’m grateful to be able to return a favor.
And then it’s 1PM. Still on my list: the due-today manuscript for a paying client, the due-yesterday pages for a paying client, the due-tomorrow pages for a paying client. A workshop to plan. My own book to write. Kindness has cost me the entire morning.
Literary citizenship is important. It’s also time-consuming. If I work from home, I have 7 hours of working day, and I usually do laundry or vacuum in there somewhere (running up and down the stairs is also good for my terrible writing posture). If I’m in the co-working space, I lose another hour to the commute. Roughly half my workday is spent on my wonderful clients’ manuscripts and another quarter on the business of being a writer: website maintenance, social media, blog posts. The last couple hours are the time I have for my own work, which I habitually (unwisely!) put last unless I’m on a deadline. If the deadline is for a client, I don’t do my own writing at all.
I’m not quite at the stage of No I Don’t Want to Read Your Manuscript, but I did add a category to my time tracker: “Kindness.” I’ve started hitting the button to see how long I’m actually “just looking something over for a friend.”
I believe in literary citizenship, and I believe in generosity (I’m a Friday’s Child). I also believe in making deposits into the Bank of Good Will against the day I’ll need to make a withdrawal. But I’ve also started thinking about how to keep doing the kindnesses I value without sacrificing too much of my own time.
- Do Less Stuff. I’m an overachiever. But when my writer friend asks for a beta read, they probably don’t want line editing. In fact, too much critique can be worse than too little. Ask before committing: “What kind of feedback are you looking for? Where are you in the process?”
- Do Stuff Faster. Which for me is also, do it more confidently. They wouldn’t ask me if they didn’t trust my skill/opinion/voice-over ability, so I don’t need to check every step of the way if I’m doing it right. Stop second-guessing every comment. Trust my friends are grown-ups and they know my brand is “Unkind Editor,” so if some of my sentences are phrased less elegantly than I would for a paying client, they’re gonna be OK.
- Don’t Do All The Stuff. Just because I’d be good at teaching that class/responding to those pages/critiquing that website doesn’t mean it has to be my job. When someone asks if I have time, it’s OK to say “No, I’m in the middle of another project.” It’s not even my job to direct them to someone else. They have agency, too. I’m not their only friend.
- Ask For Stuff. Remember that Bank of Good Will? It’s not an immediate quid pro quo. Literary favors have a long lifespan. When I needed beta readers for my last novel, some of them were people whose book I read 10 years ago. When I needed someone with good social media to promote my writing retreat, I was glad I’d promoted that person’s work for years.
Literary citizenship runs in cycles. We spend a long time helping our friends, then one day the book deal comes and it’s our turn to ask for their eyes, their email lists or their presence at our launch party. Do favors when you have time, say you can’t when you don’t. Your writing friends will understand—just as you would for them.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her and Dinty W. Moore at the Rebirth Your Book finish-your-manuscript retreat in Costa Rica, May 2020.
January 16, 2018 § 13 Comments
What do we mean by “literary citizenship”? At Salon, Becky Tuch sums it up nicely:
…most agree that good Literary Citizenship entails buying from local bookstores, attending readings, subscribing to literary magazines, interviewing writers, reviewing books, reading a friend’s manuscript, blurbing books, and so on.
And while Tuch (and I) agree with the spirit of these activities, she questions their hidden purpose. Why must we be literary citizens? Because publishers barely market mid-list and literary authors. Because Amazon has radically changed the bookstore and Wattpad has disrupted the publishing pipeline. But as Tuch points out,
the burden to ameliorate the negative effects of these industry changes falls not upon those responsible for said changes, but upon writers.
We must market. We must build platform. We must generate enough profit that the publisher will ask us to make more money for them. Writers are urged to spend hard cash on publicity and countless hours making deposits into the bank of goodwill so they can withdraw favors when the time comes. Or we can self-publish, working even harder but keeping the profit–if there is any.
Literary citizenship works when it builds community. When it feeds the writer, and contributes to, as Jane Friedman writes,
…an abundance mindset. It’s not about competition, but collaboration. If I’m doing well, that’s going to help you, too, in the long term. We’re not playing a zero-sum game where we hoard resources and attention. There’s plenty to go around.
I enjoy the abundance mindset, and I feel good helping others. Not just virtuous, or morally superior, but genuinely good.
I didn’t always feel that way. You know that sharp sting of envy when a writer you know gets a prize or a publication, and a little part of your heart yells, “Hey! That should have been mine!”? I get that too. But after deliberately practicing feeling positive about other people’s success, the sting is shorter. An unsung benefit of literary citizenship is when envy is drowned by pride:
I helped with that draft.
I told her about that residency.
I encouraged him to submit that essay.
So when I found in my inbox [subjects changed to protect the ignorant]: “I finished my history of barrel-making and a book of lyric poetry about mysticism. Do you know any agents or publishers I could send them to?” my reaction surprised me.
I remonstrated: Come on, Allison, this is a perfectly nice person you met at a party. You’ve passed on recommendations to lots of other writers you barely know. Why not this one?
Because that’s not how any of this works.
- Do your own damn homework. Basic googling brings up lists of agents. Manuscript Wishlist gets even more specific. Ask writer friends about particular matches. It’s the difference between “I’m naked, tell me what clothes I can buy” and “Red shirt or green blouse with these pants?”
- Seriously, do the homework. Two different genres, two different subjects–pick one for now. When you’re famous and well-published, then bring out your wildly different book. Agents want debut authors focused on one topic or genre.
- I’ve never read this person’s work. Useful recommendations come from knowing your work and the craft level you’ve reached. Classes, workshops and conferences are great places to get professionals to read your work, and you can buy that benefit with tuition. Local writing groups (try Meetup) get you fellow readers for free.
- Be part of the community you want favors from. This author has never read my work (that I know of), bought my book, retweeted something I linked, written a review of the Brevity Podcast or even commented on a personal Facebook status. I do not feel connected in a favor-asking way. 4/5 of those ways to connect are free of charge.
- Know how big the ask is. Personally recommending an agent or a publisher is a fairly big deal. If you don’t have a close connection, join a Facebook group for authors in your genre, spend some time being helpful in the group, then ask for recommendations in a post. Plenty of people will weigh in with information also benefiting the whole group. On a personal level, my friend of twenty years recommended me to his agent…after reading my whole manuscript and concluding he wouldn’t be embarrassed. If a teacher mentions they’ll connect you with their agent, take an honest look at whether the agent is a good match, then send your best draft, hopefully making your teacher look like a gifted talent-spotter.
(My most-recommended source for a good grounding in basic publishing info and etiquette is literary agent Janet Reid’s blog. Start with the links halfway down on the right headed Rules For Writers.)
It’s not fair that writers are obliged to labor considerably more than they used to to generate sales, or that “self-publicist” is practically a full-time job. But it’s reality. So learn how it works, do it slow, and do it right.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and not usually this cranky.
February 8, 2016 § 5 Comments
Many new writers worry that the literary world is closed. A hotbed of nepotism, mutual back-scratching, and willful avoidance of anything or anyone from over the transom. And in a way it is–no matter what our level, whether our work is in the local coffee-house’s literary journal or a respected national publication, writers read our friends, we read the people our friends told us to read, we read people with whom we have something in common, and then–if there’s time–we read everyone else.
This can be deeply frustrating when a writer is starting out. Over at LitHub, Jeff Sharlet writes an open letter to a stranger convinced his work is being overlooked, about the priorities Sharlet sets when deciding how to fill his limited reading time:
You seem indignant that I’ve not read your work; you don’t mention whether or not you’ve read mine; and you can’t imagine that there might be work by those besides you—besides me!—worth reading.
For instance, work by young writers, students, for whom I’m often the only reader. You could say, “Sure, but those kids are privileged, they can afford college.” Fair enough. But reading their work is the job that allows me to afford groceries. It has the added benefit of being deeply pleasurable, in part because so few students presume their own genius. They tend to be grateful for a single reader, even one who’s slow, sometimes, because he procrastinates by answering crank emails from strangers.
Another category of writer worth reading: Friends. “Oh, great,” you might say, “a chummy clique of established writers.” That’s true. But then, there’s the fact that we weren’t always “established,” and the reality that for all but the most famous or most self-satisfied writers, being “established”—published and sometimes paid—doesn’t mean you don’t depend on friends to ping back like sonar when you drop some new work into the abyss of public words.
Here’s what I’ve read since you first wrote to me instead of clicking on your link:
Sharlet discusses the circumstances that create communities of mutual readers, and how literary citizenship arises inextricably from personal connection–but also, how that “personal” connection isn’t something that springs fully-formed, how personal connection and literary “friends” are cultivated and maintained, largely through mutual interest in each others’ words and subject matter.
Are you reading your friends’ work? Are you reading the places you want to be published, and having small interactions in person or in email or on social media? Are you looking for places to meet other writers online or in person, in workshops, classes, forums and interest groups? Are you reading widely in the subjects or genres you care about most, and letting those authors know you exist and you appreciate their work? Those are the first steps. And what we’re all heading for is not tumbling down the walls of the literary Jericho we stand outside in supplication, but creating a new world of our own. One holding the citizens we most admire, encompassing the writers who came up with us and ourselves.
Read Jeff Sharlet’s When a Self-Declared Genius Asks You to Read His Masterpiece: In a Letter to a Total Stranger, Why I Read What I Read, at LitHub.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her literary community is largely former classmates, fellow workshop attendees, and writers she knows from a LiveJournal community.
March 23, 2015 § 1 Comment
This blog post is, really, a confession of love, though I suspect it’s not much of a confession… that you all already know that I love Brevity. I love it as a reader, because it has introduced me to so many wonderful writers, many of whom are just beginning their writing careers. I love it as a teacher of writing, because it allows me to build and rebuild my syllabi every semester around new and compelling works that lead my students toward a better understanding of both the art and the craft of creative nonfiction. And I love it as a person who cares about literature, because it fosters a community of readers and writers alike who are passionate about and dedicated to the transformative power of good writing.
I’m writing this to ask you to join me in supporting this thing that I—that we—love. We’re launching Brevity’s first fundraiser today; a Kickstarter campaign to fund our special issue on gender and some of the journal’s operating costs. (Which, for the most part, have throughout its history been funded from Dinty’s pocket. I think it’s time to say both “thank you” and “hey, why don’t you let us pitch in?” I’m betting that you think so, too, and that’s why I talked him into this Kickstarter.)
Many, many of Brevity’s authors have contributed exciting rewards: signed copies of books, essay critiques. We are also offering the usual postcards, bumper stickers, and mugs, because Brevity is nothing if not aware of genre conventions, and this IS a Kickstarter, after all. Heck, you can even join us at #AWP16 in LA for “Brunch with Brevity,” where we promise you can order both the bacon AND the sausage while talking shop with Dinty and the editors. We think our swag is the best swag, and we’re proud to bring it to you.
But, mostly—like Brevity itself—this Kickstarter is about the love of good writing, and about supporting the things we love and find important. I hope you’ll agree with me that Brevity is worth supporting, and contribute. The campaign runs through April 23rd, but don’t wait. We have some great rewards, but not many of most of them.
View the Kickstarter Here, and Thank You,.
Sarah Einstein, Special Gender Issue Co-Editor and Huge Brevity Fangirl
September 26, 2011 § 5 Comments
We’ve talked in the past about literary citizenship: the importance of giving back to the world of journals, books, and other literary venues if you hope eventually to thrive within that world. Author/editor Matt Bell, interviewed by Ploughshares, reminds us again, clearly and articulately:
I think the big mistake most writers make is thinking that becoming involved in your community is something you do after your book is published. Instead, I urge writers to become involved as early as possible, in a genuine, non-book-related way. It’s always a little off-putting when a person suddenly becomes interested in book review venues only once they have their own book. In a similar way, it seems false to only be interested in independent bookstores when you’re trying to get your own book stocked. The better solution is, as a part of your daily work as a writer, support the communities you wish to be a part of, by reading books, writing reviews, promoting other writers or bookstores or whatever in your social networking. It’s a small but old truth, but the more you give, the more you will receive. And this isn’t any kind of slimy networking. This is every writer’s responsibility, and the writers who create the most buzz for the good work of others will find that same energy waiting for them, when their own excellent book finally comes out.
August 14, 2008 § 30 Comments
Blake Butler, fictionist, blogged in a most excellent fashion recently about the need to be a positive karmic force in the world of literary citizenship. What comes around, goes around, he reminds us. Here’s an excerpt and a link to the full (albeit, oddly titled) post:
Here are some ways you can do more, outside of spending $$$.
(1) When you read something you like, in any form, write the author and tell them. You don’t have to gush or take forever. Just tell them you saw it, you read it, you liked it. It’s a supportive feeling. It’s better than not saying anything.
(2) Write reviews of books you like. Short review/long review, whatever. It’s not that hard. It takes a little work to think about it clearly, but what goes around comes around. You can’t expect to be recognized for your work if you aren’t recognizing others for their work. Open the doors.
(3) Interview writers. New writers or well known writers. You like somebody’s work a lot? Ask to do an interview with them. It doesn’t take a ton of effort. Write up some questions. Let them talk. Spread the word. Talk. Say. Get. Eat.
I have done this for years and have made friends by doing it, have ‘opened doors’ so to speak: in other words, by helping others, you are also helping yourself. If spreading others’ work isn’t enough in your mind, think of it as ‘connections.’ (I hope you don’t have to think about it in this way to justify it because that is sad, but, well, some people…) Things often can/might happen as a result of these things, on both ends, even if they are just small things, small things add up, small things can be good things, haven’t you read Carver, momentum.
Energy. Power cock.
(4) If you have free time, start an online journal. Start a blog, a review, an anything. If you don’t know how I’ll help you. Say stuff. Mean what you say.
(5) If you have a journal already, respond faster. Pay attention to your inbox. When someone asks a question that feels dumb or unnecessary maybe, answer it anyway. Don’t be a fuck. Yeah, we’re all busy. Yeah, things take time. Work to take less time. It’s okay to move forward at a wicked pace. (And yes, as an editor, I too struggle to adhere to this advice, but I struggle at least, everyone struggles, but you can always struggle more. I am so tired of seeing journals with 200+ days response time, why do you even exist? Does it really take that long to like something? People should stop sending to these places. Seriously. Just stop sending.
Yeah I know the flood comes strong. Stand in the flood. (Me too.))
Seriously, Conjunctions/Ninth Letter/Subtropics: these 3 journals get just as much work coming in as anybody, and they all respond often in less than a month.
To everyone: Push the fucking envelope even harder than you do. Be an open node.