June 13, 2017 § 4 Comments
It’s residency application season!
Well, it’s always application season. Spring applications for fall residencies, fall for spring, summer whenever, and that really prestigious place we apply to a year in advance and just figure we’ll cancel everything else in our lives if we get in. The joy of looking at our calendars and trying to figure out whether we can legit send the kids to camp and get someone to watch the dog six months from now! Nothing says fun like summarizing one’s job history, publications and self-worth in a one-page statement, CV, and work sample!
Glendaliz Camacho understands, though–from the Other Side of the Desk, she describes jurying applications and the delicate balance of Writer-Needs-This-Time-to-Succeed vs Writer’s-Already-Good-Enough-to-Be-Here:
-All I look for from a resume or CV is continual involvement, effort, and learning. Not publication in The New Yorker.
-That’s not totally true. Maybe that’s all I look for but I do notice if there are honors and publications I recognize. Too many of them and it does give me the feeling that this person is swimming along just fine and will do so with or without this residency. Too few and I wonder if it’s due to the quality of the writing.
I’ve been accepted to a few residencies, and rejected from a few more, and literally the same application packet–same work sample, same artist statement, one paragraph revised to say why I want to study with that writer/at that place–has led to both those results. Once you’ve got a solid application you’re happy with, it really isn’t personal.
As a theatre professor, I told student actors they only needed one strong minute of monologue–the auditioners know right away if they want to work with you. That’s true about writing, too. Readers can tell from the first paragraph if they’re in good hands. I also taught that, as terrifying as it feels, auditioning is not an adversarial process. Jurors want you to be good. Each time someone opens a residency application and flips to the work sample, what they’re hoping for is “Yes! This is the person who is going to be perfect!” They are looking for reasons to accept you. And you can give them those reasons:
Send your best work. Check the guidelines carefully–if it says, send what you’re planning to work on, send the very best pages of that. Run those pages past a writer friend, even if the whole piece isn’t ready. If the application doesn’t require what you’re proposing to work on, send your very best pages in the genre of your application. Unless they specify unpublished, it’s often worth it to send something published, because that’s been polished under a stranger’s eye. It doesn’t matter if that’s not the project you’re working on–this where they want to see results. If you don’t have many (or any) publication credits, this is the time to show how your work is so good, it’s going to be published sooner or later.
Speaking of publication credits, know your level. Near the beginning of their writing career, a writer is unlikely to get in to Yaddo, Macdowell, Hedgebrook or the Millay Colony. Don’t waste your time and application fee; apply to a place that’s within your same general accomplishment level. Find this out by looking at profiles of past residents. If the website doesn’t list bios, search for Name of Residency + “author” and see who pops up. Do they all have Pulitzers? Maybe wait until your book deal. Are they publishing in the same literary magazines you are? Full steam ahead! If you’re still uncertain, ask your mentor/teacher/workshop leader. I was surprised to hear that my teacher thought it was a good idea to apply to a residency I’d assumed was beyond my reach; I would also have valued him saying, “Maybe wait until you have more publications.” If you’re worried about your qualifications and it’s within your financial reach, try a pay-to-play residency, where the odds of getting in are better and then you have one residency already on your CV. Some paid residencies are income-sensitive, too, and that’s worth looking for or asking about.
Be honest–within limits. A pure, direct statement of your need and ambition can be captivating on the page. But this is not the time for pipe dreams or raw discussion of the faults we all have. Don’t tell them you have a hard time finishing work at home. We all do. Focus on what that specific venue, geographic location, philosophy of work, or master teacher has to offer you. Tie in something unique to that residency to something unique about you. “I want to work with Writer Who Makes Collages A Lot because I’m eager to expand my work in collages and build a chapbook from my publications in Journal of Collage.” “I’m working in soundscapes and want to bring my equipment and use it in the music studio available at this residency site.”
Glendaliz Camacho’s blog post is full of brilliant, reassuring, enlightening information on reading and writing applications (and a wonderful digression into telling-vs-showing in describing setting). In particular, she points out “A great artist statement tells a story,” and “A great work plan is plain and direct.” Go read the whole thing.
September 21, 2015 § 35 Comments
How many drafts must a writer draft
Before you call it a book?
How many times must you read the text
Before your editor looks?
Yes, how many times should it be revised
To get a reader hooked?
The answer my friend is seven.
Last week I was invited to speak to Wrimo India, a group of participants in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) who formed their own writing support group on Facebook and also do in-person meet-ups to write, talk writing, and write some more.
We met at a coffee shop in Mumbai and live-streamed the chat through Periscope so non-local writers could join in and ask questions. One of the best questions, though, was after the camera was turned off:
How many drafts do I need to write before hiring an editor?
First, let’s deconstruct. Not everybody needs an editor, so let’s look at this question as:
What kind of shape does my book need to be in before I spend money or use up favors to get outside feedback?
Many writers finishing a book for the first time don’t yet have a method of working their way through subsequent drafts. Where do you start? How can you tell what needs fixing? How do you know if the book is even worth another draft?
As a freelance editor, I see a lot of the same issues in everyone’s essays, stories, memoirs and novels. Technical issues like wrongly formatted or too many dialogue tags. Voice issues like inconsistent speech or characters who sound the same. Point-of-view issues like head-hopping or characters being able to see or understand things they don’t have access to. As an editor, I can note these issues for authors who want to fix them, or address them myself for authors who want to throw money. But most of these issues can be found and reworked by the author before they spend money on professional editing or use up a “please give me feedback on my manuscript” favor. It’s time-consuming and thinking-intensive, but it’s not a secret or a talent–it’s a skill anyone willing to go through seven drafts can acquire.
Here’s the seven-draft method:
The Vomit Draft: get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled right. Don’t worry about complete sentences because. Sure there’s a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, and in the second-last chapter you realized you really do have to put Aunt Nancy in this book. Just finish. If you hit a place where you don’t know what to write, put in a placeholder like “NEED SCENE WITH MOM HERE SOMETHING HUMOROUS,” or write about the scene that belongs there, like “That time I was in the kitchen and Steve touched the stove and I just knew we were going to break up because of the way his fist wrapped around the salt shaker.” Then let the manuscript sit for a week.
The Story Draft: take a look at the manuscript, and for each scene write one sentence about what happens in that scene.
While driving home from a wedding, I find a stray dog.
I take the dog home and keep her over my girlfriend’s objections.
My girlfriend demands I choose between her and the dog.
I go get a haircut.
During this process, you’ll discover any places that the plot doesn’t make sense, is missing a big event, has a random extra scene (why the haircut?) needs another character to show up, etc. This is also the time to fill in any placeholders from the first draft. Revise the manuscript accordingly and let it sit for a week.
The Character Draft: For each character, go through the book and read only their parts. If this is a memoir, this is the time to make sure the protagonist’s actions and reactions seem motivated and urgent. Make sure the characters only know what’s in their heads and only see what they can actually see. For example, four-year-old child-you can’t see the top of the kitchen counter. Adult-you can guess at other people’s thoughts but not omnisciently know them. This is also a chance to go through the dialogue, character by character, making sure that each person sounds like themselves, and that it would be pretty clear who is speaking even without dialogue tags. If you’re writing fiction, you may discover that a character needs more on-page time in the book. Revise, let sit.
The Technical Draft: Working chapter-by-chapter, does each chapter end with both satisfaction and forward motion? Does each chapter start with a compelling action or image? With each scene, have you gotten in as late as you can and still set the scene, and have you ended the scene as early as you can and still have it feel complete? Are there extra words? Sentences that don’t make sense? Refine your authorial voice in this draft. By now you should know what you want to say–this draft is about how to say it. It’s also useful at this stage to do a search-and-find for -ly and remove unnecessary adverbs; to eliminate as many “was verbing” constructions as you can, and check on words you know you overuse. Revise, let sit.
The Personal Copyedit: Not to be confused with an actual copyedit, this is an easy draft. Run spellcheck with the grammar turned on. Print out the manuscript and see what shows up when you’re turning a physical page. Read it out loud and catch errors that your eyes got used to on the screen. This is the be-kind-to-your-reader draft. Yes, it’s still a work in progress, but you want it to be a pleasant experience for the next step…
The Friend Read: Sometimes called a beta read. This is where you exchange manuscripts with a writer pal, or call in favors from the people who keep offering to read your book. It’s best to arm your friend with some specific questions: Did the story make sense? Where did your attention flag? Which character do you want to see more of? Was anything distracting from the main story? When you get their comments back, try to get them in writing, even if that’s you taking notes while they talk. Do not defend your book. Do not assume they missed something. Set the notes aside for a couple of days and then go back and see what rings true when your feelings have cooled down. Revise accordingly.
The Editor Read: This still doesn’t have to mean forking out cash. This can be the first time you send it to your agent, if you’re working with an agent. This can be exchanging manuscripts with someone you know to be harsher or more technically-demanding than the previous reader. And yes, it can also mean hiring a professional editor or writing coach. But this is the draft where it’s worth either spending money or calling in a big favor (and you’ve been reading for other people as much as you can this whole time, right?) Before you send it out, read it one more time yourself. Knowing that a big read is imminent, more issues will stick out to you.
These seven drafts are often more than one draft each. You might do three Story Drafts, or two rounds of Friend Reading. Some drafts take days, some take weeks or months. You might backtrack and revisit the Technical Draft after doing an on-paper Personal Copyedit. Let it sit for as long as you need to between drafts. And for at least a couple of drafts, print it out, edit the manuscript on sloppy, satisfying paper, and retype the whole thing so you can feel the flow.
I’ve found this method to work for everything from essays to full-length memoirs and novels. If you try it, let me know how it goes. And if you’ve got a different method or a variation, please tell us about it in the comments.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. If you’d like to watch the 25-minute Periscope video, we also talk about writing books set in cultures foreign to your own, common technical mistakes, how every book is a mystery, and what to do if your book gets banned. (We get started about 2 minutes in, and please note this was extemporaneous, taped on a phone, and in a coffee shop.)
September 4, 2015 § 2 Comments
Ah, David Foster Wallace. The teacher we either wish desperately we had or are heartily thankful we didn’t. And a kickass syllabus writer, too. For instance:
…the adjective creative signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work. This creative goal, broadly stated, may be to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these. Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to “share” or “express herself” or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.
Check out the whole thing–and wonder what grade you might have gotten on the scale of “Mind-blowingly good” to “Downright bad”–over at Salon.
September 2, 2015 § 3 Comments
When journalists become narrative-non-fiction writers, when essayists delve into memoir, the transition can be a challenge. How do we move from short and punchy (or mid-length and devastating) to a book-length work that holds the reader’s attention and leaves them satisfied?
At Nieman Storyboard, Bloomsbury Press Publisher and Editorial Director Peter Ginna discusses some key tools and techniques for successful book-length creative nonfiction. He points out why thematic and episodic structures often fail, how to figure out how much background to include (hint: “If you find yourself writing what the British call a “potted history” of World War II, your protagonist’s adolescence, or the development of the personal computer, there’s a good chance you are burdening the story with an excess of background”), and why sourcing matters.
As memoirists and essayists, we’ve heard this before, but Ginna’s phrasing bears repeating:
The most critical difference between a book and a magazine or newspaper article is that the publisher has to convince someone to part with 25 dollars or more for this story and this story alone, and perhaps more important, to invest several hours of his or her life in reading it. That’s a pretty high threshold. To get across it, you need a topic that is more than merely interesting and a narrative that’s more than well-wrought. You need a story that has a significance beyond itself, and you need to convey that significance to the reader.
[Ginna’s emphasis, and we emphatically concur.]
Check out the whole article at Nieman Storyboard.
November 5, 2014 § 4 Comments
It’s ‘rude’ to talk about money, right? I mean, unless you’re in New York and asking about an apartment, we Just Don’t Do That. It’s like asking about the color of someone’s underwear–isn’t that, well, personal?
Sure, it’s easy to find contest fees and prizes, and literary journals’ submission fees–often much better publicized than their pay rates–but finding out what magazines, newspapers or websites will actually write a check for a charming essay on motherhood or an investigative piece on school testing is like trying to find out the color of your professor’s underwear.
Just. Not. Happening.
Whether your goal is to write full-time, write part-time with writing-related job, write part-time as a break from or complement to your non-writing-related job, or because you damn well feel like it, it’s nice to know how to get paid. And over at Scratch Magazine (which is also a terrific magazine about the business of writing). they’ve figured out a way to share that information without making anyone undress.
Composed of anonymous submissions, the list is well-organized with tags to find particular media. Find out not only who’s paying, but what rights they want and what kind of stories they’re buying (investigative, personal essays, topical, etc). It’s a great place to check before you pitch, after you pitch, and when you’re looking for a home for something you’ve already written. Some samples:
S.F. EXAMINER: $100 for 100-250 words, FOB (front of book), news, in print and online. Medium reporting. “They say payment terms are net 30 in the contract, but invoicing is done every 30 days, and checks arrive between 45-60 days after an invoice is sent. It is as painful as it sounds.Sunday feature stories 600-700 words pay $200. And $25 extra for a single photograph for a story.Good editors. Some of whom will teach.”
ADBUSTERS: $1500 for a 2000-4000 word feature in print and online in 2014. Medium reporting. “Great edits & timely payment”.
I love browsing their listings for ideas–often, I’ll see a magazine that pays decently, think the title sounds like something I’d click with, go to the website and bam! Essay idea! With a possible market!
PLAYBOY: $11000 for a 2000-4000 word feature in print and online in 2014. Medium reporting.
Ahem. Excuse me. I think I need to go strip down to my underwear.
Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams is currently sporting a pair of navy full-bottom granny briefs. Before boarding a seven-hour flight AMS-MSP, so don’t judge.
October 15, 2014 § 9 Comments
I’ve recently hung out my shingle as an editor, and it’s been fascinating to look up and confirm bits of grammar and punctuation I’m “pretty sure” I know, but am now paranoiac about getting absolutely right. Over at Medium, there’s a great rundown on commonly confused words from Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, including this lovely distinction:
One’s sweetheart is “hon,” not “hun,” unless one’s sweetheart is Attila (not, by the way, Atilla) or perhaps Winnie-the-Pooh (note hyphens).
It’s a quick, fun read and you’ll want to bookmark it–if not for yourself, for reference during future arguments with your editor.
August 6, 2014 § 14 Comments
By Allison K Williams
In my head, real writers wake up, head to the typewriter, and happily pound away until their word count for the day is complete. Then, emotionally depleted but happy, they retire to the lounging sofa for the afternoon.
There’s something wrong with this picture. For starters, there’s a typewriter in it.
It’s also (based on every writer I know) completely inaccurate in every other way, too. A big lie that I’ve told myself.
Everyone sweats. Everyone slogs. Everyone feels alone and sad, and like they must not be a “real writer” because “real writers” have a different/superior/classic process.
I finished a memoir and got an agent and spent a month at loose ends. There was a lot of lounging sofa, but not a lot of word count.
I felt like a loser. Like I’d probably never write anything again. That was it, my last good idea, spent. And of course from there I shame-spiraled into the book will never sell the agent just felt sorry for me and now she and her interns spend Casual Fridays hoisting Oreo-tinis and reading out choice bits of my manuscript in funny voices. (Michelle, please don’t tell me if that’s true. Let an intern tell me.)
So I screwed up my courage and asked a writer I respect a lot, “What do you do after you’ve written a book?”
“Mooch around the internet, work in my garden, look out the window, and think about how I’ll never write anything else ever again.”
It’s not just me.
It’s not just you, either.
There is no magic process that “real writers” do. You are a “real writer” when you write. You are still a “real writer” when you’re not writing, when you’re sitting and listening for words to come. Maybe your listening is taking long walks, or watching cat videos, or reading wonderful books you admire or reading trashy books that entertain you. For me, listening is hanging out on the lounging sofa and imagining a little room. I wait in the room, and my ideas are people coming to me with problems. I listen until someone shows up with a problem I want to solve.
I listen for the truth to show up, so I can tell it.
(P.S. I own the Oliver Typewriter above, and I sometimes turn it to the wall when I imagine it’s silently judging.)
Allison K Williams is Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. She is also a freelance editor. She tweets @GuerillaMemoir.
August 5, 2014 § 25 Comments
Of course I do.
After I work out for fifteen minutes, drink two bottles of water, wash the dishes, drop the curtains at the tailors, do a few hours for my freelance job, research places to submit, listen to a podcast, eat lunch and make love to my boyfriend, not in that order.
I’m not sure where the book time is going to fit. And my sense of “responsibility” wants me to be responsible to everything else I can possibly commit to, before allowing me to commit to my own creative life.
Anne Lamott’s essay for Sunset proposes a terrifyingly simple solution. What can writers give up? What matters less than writing? Where can we carve out an hour for a page?
This is what I say: First of all, no one needs to watch the news every night, unless one is married to the anchor. Otherwise, you are mostly going to learn more than you need to know about where the local fires are, and how rainy it has been: so rainy! That is half an hour, a few days a week, I tell my students. You could commit to writing one page a night, which, over a year, is most of a book.
Maybe the curtains can stay hemmed with binder clips. If I leave the washing up, my boyfriend will (gladly) do it. Especially if I skip the podcast and keep the making love.
July 28, 2014 § 6 Comments
I started listening to podcasts because I was commuting from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Waynesville, Ohio every weekend. Five hours each way, and Beyoncé’s a boss but there’s only so many times in a row I can belt out Single Ladies before my passengers start to complain (twice). Enter This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the
skull-pounding nightmare delightful folksiness of Prairie Home Companion.
As I’ve become a radio storyteller and producer, I’ve started listening to podcasts more carefully. Radio producers thrive on making a signature sound for their own shows, a unique style that’s the equivalent of “voice” in written work. If you’re looking for inspirational approaches to structure, viewpoint and story, check out these listens. The links below take you right to the episodes, or click on the podcast title to get to their homepage, where you can subscribe in the audio service of your choice.
If you’re writing hybrid or braided essays:
Radiolab mixes anecdote, conjecture, expert testimony, historical fact and contemporary experiments to tell the stories behind science. Their narrative style is a great example of mixed genres coming together to tell a single story.
Episodes to start with: Rodney vs Death, Colors, and Are You Sure? (This one is a three-story episode. Be aware that the third story–which is one of the most incredible stories I’ve ever heard–is not kid- or work-safe)
If you’re having trouble plotting, or want to amp up your humor:
Snap Judgment has a young, quirky feel, and weaves sound design into storytelling that’s often live. They’re a great listen for sequential stories with surprising endings. If you’re trying to nail down an “…and I learned that…” ending without sounding trite, Snap’s stories can help. If you’re trying to up your humor, they’re often very funny, too.
If you can’t figure out whether an incident is a story, or are struggling with finding dramatic movement in a reflective essay:
Third Coast International Audio Festival has its own podcast series, but something that’s served me well is the recordings of workshops and panels at their biannual convention. In particular, check out the “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Panel” sessions. After listening to several in a row, I was able to start distinguishing what was a story and what was a vignette or an observation even before the panel responded to the pitcher.
Start with: Pitch Perfect Session 2 from the 2012 Conference
If you’re approaching a difficult topic:
Love+Radio producer Nik Van der Kolk is a master of revealing a nonfiction story like a mystery. His use of low-fi sound and recordings that would be considered “flawed” by other shows is fascinating. Listen to the way information is slowly revealed to suck the listener right in before they shy away from the topic.
One to start with: Jack and Ellen (Most of Love+Radio is not kid- or work-safe. Again, incredible story, put in your earbuds or have grown-up passengers)
Happy listening–and if you’ve got a favorite podcast or episode, post a link in the comments–I’m always on the lookout for a good listen!