An Ode To Clarity

February 15, 2018 § 13 Comments

Members of the Brevity staff sporting their formal writing daywear

Some time ago, I wrote at The Review Review:

…when a magazine elides their lack of cash compensation or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern, or a criterion for submission. It becomes another subtle signpost to writers: Your work shouldn’t be for money. At its worst, not actively sharing the information says, you shouldn’t care, writer. You shouldn’t ask. As if it’s money-grubbing or disgraceful or besmirching the purity of the art.

It’s not.

It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a “literary” writer—to want to be paid.

Today, jet-lagged and still trying to track down payment info, I am moved to poetry. With apologies to Tennyson and Elizabeth Bishop–

_________

I sit and surf the internet
My list of brand-new journals set
There’s just one thing they oft forget
To tell me if they pay.

Their mission statement’s pure and strong
They’ve published memoir, poem and song
Their limit’s twenty pages long
Now tell me, do they pay?

I read through issues old and new
Decide that I admire you
One detail more I need to view–
To find out if you pay.

We’re literary citizens
Buying chapbooks by the tens
Sharing work from all our friends
No matter if we’re paid.

We’re told to have a long-term plan
Submit near-daily if we can
But our hearts turn pale and wan
From never getting paid.

I’m happy to publish for free
Or for an honorary fee
To choose a venue for prestige
And sometimes I want pay.

It’s not a crime to build on love
To work together for the cause
It’s just that I would like to choose
To sell my words for pay.

It’s not enough to think it’s clear no
stated fee means no pay here. Oh
don’t default to author=zero,
Own it! “We don’t pay.”

There’s lots of ways to sweetly say:
We pay in copies!
Old jalopies!
Just the fame–
We’ll make your name!
We’re all hard-working
No-one’s shirking
We’re not sad or even mad
If your rule is iron-clad
For newer rags we’ll join the bet
But please be clear, “no budget yet”
For big-deal pages we’re excited
Just the print makes us delighted
But let us please decide ourselves
Whether to donate or sell
And tell us journals, far and near
(we promise we’ll still hold you dear)
Just make the information clear
Please tell us if you pay.

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Allison K Williams has been Brevity‘s Social Media editor since 2015. She promises to wait another three years before again committing poetry.

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Sh*tty First Draft

February 13, 2018 § 15 Comments

Sorry kid, we regret we’re unable to include your pony request in North Pole Review, please keep us in mind for future submissions

Interviewing an author for the Brevity Podcast, I ask how his book is coming along. He says it’s terrible. He has no idea how he’ll make his way through, finish a draft so he can fix it in revisions. I trust and respect this writer, but part of me still thinks, yeah, right. I know him to be an amazing writer, I love his work. I can’t imagine him writing the same pages of unfocused crap I do.

An early-career writer friend says, “Every time I read an interview with a famous author, they all say they write shitty first drafts. But they never show them to anyone, so it just sounds like something they say to make crappy writers feel better about themselves. Like telling us to believe in Santa Claus.”

The idea of the shitty first draft has been around for a long time. Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Bernard Malamud: “The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.” Many of us know the concept from Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird:

Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.

People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.

But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.

But it’s still hard to believe.

As a circus performer, I spent hours in the gym falling into mats over and over again, watching people I loved and respected, people I knew to be far more skilled than me, also fall into mats over and over again in the same room. In a museum, I can see Picasso’s sketches and mistakes hung next to his masterworks. But once a writer’s no longer in school, we rarely see the process of our peers. (If you’re still in school, start planning who you’re going to stay in touch with to share work.) I’m lucky to have a few writing buddies I can share shapeless early drafts with, people I know will be sensitive to whether I need encouragement or critique, people whose early and middle and final drafts I see, too, so it feels like an exchange instead of judgement.

Shitty first drafts aren’t the only way to write. Some writers prefer revising as they go. I’m sure some writers think through their story so thoroughly in their heads, or outline so precisely, that once they sit down, the right words come out in more or less the right order. But for many of us, the first draft is basically telling the story to ourselves. Thinking on the page–finding the heart of the story way down on page five, a single beautiful sentence in the margin, or the perfect opening in the final paragraph.

As a teacher, it’s embarrassing to share a terrible, misguided, overwritten, overwrought first draft with our students. As a writer, no-one wants to let our weak sentences out into the world before we’ve muscled them up and trimmed them down. But there’s value in a a sloppy, disorganized, poorly written first draft. It’s not a failure, it’s a necessary first step. It’s barre exercises before ballet, scales before singing, charcoal on newsprint before oil on canvas. It’s writing a 1500-word narrative essay/journal entry that becomes a 700-word hermit-crab essay. Taking the time to assemble the materials of events, characters, plot and themes, letting them be jumbled until they tell us what they want to say, trusting that from the pile of pieces we can find a story, we can pull a shining thread.

Yes, Virginia, wherever there are writers, there are shitty first drafts. And just as presents and nibbled cookies prove Santa showed up in the night, the very existence of finished, glorious work means someone, somewhere, wrote a terrible first draft.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published In Literary Magazines.

The Jet Set Life of a Real Writer

February 5, 2018 § 13 Comments

That Pulitzer’s not going to win itself

Oh the glamorous literary life—last week Dubai, yesterday New York, today Shreveport! I’m writing this in the back of a Lyft on the way to the airport, after a week of parties and book-signings, retweeting Shonda Rhimes’ compliments and brainstorming article ideas for major national publications, la la la.

Except it’s not for me. Sure, I live in Dubai (husband already worked there when I met him), but the last five days in New York have been focused on a client. A lovely author whose book comes out this week and who yes, was listed in Shondaland. I’m the writing coach. My work is literary-adjacent: support my client at a bookstore event, spelling names correctly on post-its for the signing table. Introduce her at the release party. Talk through ideas for articles. Work next to her at the kitchen table, updating my website while she answers questions for a blog about writers and their dogs.

There’s a persistent myth that “real writers” just write. Over at Lithub, Rosalie Knecht tells us how that got started:

It’s easy to forget that Hemingway and the rest went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like. This was not only a setting: it was a particular economy. Not only was rent cheap, but print was still the king of mass media. It was possible, for a brief moment in time, to make a living selling pieces to magazines. As a result, the image of the writing life created in this period includes no non-writing day jobs whatsoever.

When people ask me what I do, I say “I’m a writer. And I edit other people’s work.” Yes, I get paid to write, already a huge step, but I wrote a lot for free before I started getting paid, and I still write for free for venues I’m invested in as a literary citizen (hello, Brevity readers!). Even my client with the brand-new book is still writing for free—those blog interviews don’t write themselves, and even authors whose publishers pay for the book tour must write for publicity. Signing books is not “writing” time. Midlist authors—that group a publisher needs for bread and butter, but who don’t get press releases sent to Shondaland—mostly have day jobs, or spouses with day jobs. Small-press authors are often teaching full-time.

Most of my “writing” days look like this:

  • 6AM-7AM: Squint at Twitter in bed
  • 7AM-9AM: Morning routine, commute
  • 9AM-10:30AM: Coffee, breakfast, social media, that thing where I cross a bunch of easy stuff off my list instead of tackling the most important thing first
  • 10:30AM-12PM: Write novel (OK, sometimes it’s only an hour)
  • 12PM-4PM: Editing other people’s work, website updates, planning the India retreat for writers mid-book, the Brevity blog and podcast, punctuated by email and social media
  • 4PM-6:30PM: Commute, cook dinner
  • 6:30PM-10PM: Spend time with husband, email, social media, editing

Notice there’s 90 minutes of actual, writing-the-project-I-love time. Max. On a good day. And on a good day, that’s plenty. I’m writing hard, emotionally involving stuff right now, and there’s only so much time I can spend crying and snotting.

What works for me, what feels “real,” is making it to the chair five days out of seven. Writing on a me-project most of those days. That may not be what works for you—maybe you get 10 minutes a day, or chunks of weekend, or early mornings, or three days a month, or summer vacation. Your schedule reflects your life in an economy where rent is a much larger percentage of income than it was in 1948, and where most health insurance is tied to working full time. Many of us have kids, spouses, even friends we like to spend time with. On the up side, we’re much less likely to drink or cough ourselves to death, or be brutally satirized by Truman Capote.

When I taught theatre, I told a lot of worried parents, “Everyone thinks ‘Hollywood star!’ is every actor’s goal. But most actors I know make a living in regional theatre and summer Shakespeare festivals, teaching, recording audio books and guesting on Law&Order. Fame does not equal success. Success does not equal fame. Your kid can be happy and make a living doing something they love and are good at.”

Famous writers are doing more than writing what they love. Successful writers may never be household names. Art is not somehow purer if we do nothing else. Do what you love and are good at. Do it often enough to get better. Do it when and where you can. That’s real. That’s enough.

 

Rosalie Knecht’s article at Lithub is well worth a full read.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. This summer, she’s leading Rebirth Your Book in Kerala, India.

Five Quick Fixes To Make Your Essay Better Right Now

February 1, 2018 § 25 Comments

patent diagram of a roller skateNot “feeling it,” but need to get some writing in? Don’t have time for a long sit at the coffee shop, but you might have fifteen minutes before carpool? Technical fixes are the way to go.

1. Check for “was verb-ing” constructions. In Microsoft Word, do a wildcard search:

  1. Open Advanced Find and Replace
  2. Check the box for Wildcards On
  3. Put this in Find, including the <> part: <was [a-z]@ing>
  4. Repeat with <were [a-z]@ing>
  5. 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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

Duck, Duck, Essay

January 25, 2018 § 5 Comments

For once autocorrect was right: it’s a duck pic.

When I stopped touring as an entertainer, I was ready to cook. After years of hotels and rental housing, it’s a pleasure to take time in the kitchen. My co-working space is next to a grocery and I live in a multi-cultural city where it’s easy to find five kinds of mango and green, white, purple and black eggplant in round and long shapes.

None of this explains why I thought it was a good idea to roast a duck.

I started with a recipe purporting to simplify the Peking Duck process and a frozen bird.

Cooking a brand-new, complicated recipe is a lot like starting an essay. First, the excitement of novelty–sure, I’ll take this interesting/funny/traumatic/dramatic experience I had and write it up! Try to publish, maybe even get paid! Writing experience, workshops or classes feel like a solid foundation. Craft books are full of clear, specific directions. We know what the dish should taste like from enjoying the best-selling offerings of professional cooks, and that pleasure is a powerful pull to try this at home, to give others the intensity we’ve experienced.

The frozen duck thaws in the fridge for three days, ideas germinating, anticipating the start. But assembling the ingredients gets tricky. What the heck is maltose and where do I buy it? Can I substitute another detail for the green dress my sister swears she never owned?

The steps are more involved than we bargained for. To make room for the duck fat to flow out in cooking (less fat=crispier), the duck skin must be separated from the meat. If you don’t have a kitchen of trained under-chefs specializing in duck inflation (seriously, Chinese cooks use a straw to blow it up like a balloon), it takes shoving your fingers under the skin, pulling away the membrane bit by bit without tearing, in a tight space you can’t see. This takes half an hour. Probably more, but that’s where I said “good enough!” My husband will eat good-enough duck. I can’t send a good-enough essay into a literary world that’s tasted better.

The process gets counter-intuitive. Why do I pour boiling water over a duck I spent two days drying out? Isn’t salt+soy sauce going to be too salty? How does changing the POV help the essay, isn’t this about my perspective? What good will analyzing sentence structure do if I’m not “feeling it”?

Steps that sounded easy bring up strange emotions. Cooking a chicken is not especially hands-on. A duck has to be massaged with seasonings, then lifted and drained. The extra fat makes the duck soft around the middle, almost plush. There’s a visceral feeling of holding waterfowl. I apologize to the duck. I wonder if the essay will make my mother angry, or sad, or bring us closer by confronting something we pretended wasn’t there. A living being is getting hurt for my creative satisfaction.

It takes way more time than planned. After two hours, the skin is well-browned but not crisp. Fat is still dripping, burning on the catch pan underneath. The vent hood is overtaxed. My husband opens every window in the house. After three weeks, shouldn’t this essay be more than free-association around two good paragraphs? Why is this topic permeating everything else I want to spend time on?

Another thirty minutes, a bowl of duck fat, and a house full of duck-flavored smoke later, I served the duck. It looked fine and tasted lovely, even if there wasn’t very much crackling skin. I’d call it a second draft. Not a total jumble, but not the polished, finished dish I’d hoped for. We tore the meat from the bones with our hands, as up-close-and-personal a process as reading someone else’s thoughts, our scrolling fingers in their guts. I made some mental notes adjusting the cooking process.

The essay’s not done yet, either–not even ready to serve up as a draft to forgiving reader friends. But there’s a reason to trust the process, step by step. Follow guidance. Learn to cook. Trust our taste to know when we pass “good enough.” Transcend the shame of eating fat and telling all, going farther than our fear, reaching past our skill and comfort to create a powerful experience for those we serve.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

Do It Now

January 23, 2018 § 19 Comments

Years ago, my mother was a beauty queen. Not metaphorically–she was Miss Niagara Falls and Miss Ottawa and twice runner-up to Miss Canada. As a kid, I spent hours leafing through her scrapbook, marveling at the full-coverage swimsuits of early-1960s Ontario and thinking how much young Mom looked like Grace Kelly. But my favorite of her titles was a small, local affair–not even really a pageant.

Winter 1965, the Ottawa Jaycees, a businessmen’s club (like Kiwanis or Rotary), wanted to combat seasonal unemployment by encouraging people to fix up their homes now. Instead of waiting for spring and better weather, get out there, buy some lumber, hire a contractor and get going! In the Ottawa newspaper, my mother wears snowpants and a parka, one foot on a shovel, surrounded by workmen. There’s a construction helmet perched on her beehive hairdo. The caption? “She’s Miss Do-It-Now.”

I’m pretty sure the kids of 1965 found her title as giggly as I did in 1985.

But the message is clear. Don’t cross items off the to-do list–write now.

Don’t wait for better weather, or a better mood.

Skip the easy satisfaction of running errands, prepping dinner, running laundry, returning calls. Shut down the internet and put your phone face-down. Don’t check the news–it’s just going to make you mad or sad. You don’t need a perfect coffee shop or the right table or the right moment. Put your kid in the playpen with plenty of toys (or, depending on age, give them unfettered screen time for an hour or two, saying firmly that time will be cut short if any questions are asked or interruptions made).

If you’re stuck on the next scene, write the scene after that.

If you sit down and the words won’t come, write about what you’re going to write:

Scene with Sandy and me in the kitchen, when I realized she was dating my ex and it made me really uncomfortable. She had just dyed her hair blonde and I was alphabetizing the spice rack so I wouldn’t say she looked awful. She said…

And before you know it, you’re writing the thing instead of about the thing. Or at least getting down the first draft, the one where you tell the story to yourself. The one you can fix in the second draft.

It’ll feel weird and awkward and not like your normal happy routine of writing when circumstances are just right (rarely!). It’ll feel precarious like a helmet perched on big 1950’s hair, and vaguely off-color like a beauty title that sounds a little dirty.

Do it anyway.

Don’t wait for spring, or springtime in your heart.

Do it now.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Today she’s writing through the flu, which sucks but is still words.

Going Analog

January 9, 2018 § 25 Comments

Photo of stationery store, three aisles of pens.

Just pens.

In Taiwan, there are historic shophouses, cliffs crumbling into the Pacific Ocean, and a glorious day where gods are processed through the streets, heralded by firecrackers and bands.

There are also huge stationery stores. The first one I saw–9X9 Stationery Expert–I walked right into four aisles of pens. Just pens. Not erasers or pencils–those have their own aisles, thank you very much. Upstairs were rows of stickers, file folders, calendars, art supplies, and shelf after shelf of notebooks, lined and squared and blank and ready for absolutely brilliant and world-changing writing.

That’s my secret hope for every blank page I buy. But usually new notebooks end up on a shelf, because they’re “too nice to use” or I’m on a kick where I only write in composition books or hotel notepads or primary school tablets from Austria. I finally solved that quandary by buying the same notebook every time, in packs of three, so I can write on nice paper without feeling like I’m committing desecration.

Still, I wanted the cute notebook that said “Everything Is Going to Be OK” on the cover. Or the one with the old-fashioned folded pages, to be slit apart with a paper knife. Maybe the one lined vertically for kanji writing, with anime pandas on every page. Before my husband hauled me out of the store (after waiting patiently for almost an hour), I’d bought gifts for friends and paper clips shaped like the Eiffel Tower.

I got sucked into an artsy independent store in Kaohsiung. In Tainan, going alone at night to 101 Stationary Paradise felt like meeting a lover. On my birthday, my husband indulged me. We walked almost five miles to hit every stationery store in Hualien for the right set of rubber-stamp letters.

It’s the promise of the blank page–not only are we going to write something on a fresh, clean space free of previous failure, we’ll do it with the joy and abandon of an eight-year-old with a brand-new box of still-pointy crayons that haven’t yet been forcibly shared with siblings.

I’ve moved away from paper. I have a habit-tracker and a list app and a calendar and everything syncs with my phone. It’s too easy. Every idea gets put in a digital list and forgotten immediately. Perhaps twenty projects have been broken into steps and abandoned. I dutifully tick off exercise and birthdays and groceries. Meanwhile, my notebooks sit half-filled, pulled out for a workshop when I’m doing “real” writing.

But I wanted those Taiwanese notebooks and pens, and I didn’t want them sitting on a shelf. There had to be a plan. I found the Bullet Journal. Beautiful, hand-lettered calendars, habit trackers and moon charts sprawled across Instagram and Pinterest, hashtagged with the notebooks and art pens used to create them. It was way more than I could handle. (If you’re interested but easily overwhelmed, start with #minimalistbujo)

Instead, I resurrected an idea from Lynda Barry’s marvelous book Syllabus: use the same notebook for everything. Class notes and errand lists. Brainstorming and doodling. Real assignments and rough drafts and fresh ideas. Barry proposes that putting everything in one place sparks connections from proximity, even among unrelated items. And really, what more relationship do they need than all coming from the same head?

I stuck with the same notebook because I had a new one with me. I’m not sure I love the pens. I bought the wrong color stamp pad. I’m not a great visual designer, my pages bleed through and my handwriting is shitty. But so far it’s working. Everything in one book, the joy of playing with colored pencils and a cute sharpener and washi tape. If an idea is worth keeping, it’s worth writing down, flipping back to when I need something to write (like this blog post). If a job is worth doing, it’s worth copying to next week’s list–or let it go un-copied and undone, instead of popping up as an automatically scheduled “priority.”

When I first workshopped with Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore, he required all in-class writing to be done on paper, because (paraphrasing) the veins in the hand connect to the heart, and we can write more truly and deeply without the mediation of the keyboard. I do feel more connected to what I’m writing, even “cancel credit card,” and I’m finding things easier to remember (science!).

I probably won’t go completely analog, because typing is fast. But I’ve woken up five days in a row eager to get to the page, to color and write and make things. I’ve felt more focused, and the paper page doesn’t let me click through to Facebook.

New year, new notebook. Maybe it’s a gimmick. But for now, sign me up.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

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