People often ask if I teach essay writing. The answer is: sort of. I’m better one-on-one and in small in-person groups (a holdover from being a therapist, perhaps?) and, so, consult accordingly.
I was recently asked 5 questions about essay writing (see below) for a class. These questions and answers will hopefully get you thinking about your own work.
Tell me about the first essay you sold.
Me[redith]: The first essay I sold was more of an essay/advice piece, and it was to Bride’s. My father had passed away before my wedding and I wanted to write something that shared both my personal story but that included information that might also help someone else in a similar situation.
Can you tell me a little bit about your process? How do you go about writing an essay?
Me[redith]: Sometimes it turns out that there is a specific topic I want to write about, and so I just write and write and write until I have a vague idea of where it’s going beyond the “idea.” I do this because, as a writer and a reader, I’m most interested in connections that “make themselves” rather than me trying to seek them out. Once those connections present themselves, and I have enough of them, the “writing” becomes more about shaping and editing and refining.
Where/how do you find ideas?
Me[redith]: I don’t go looking because I’ve found that the approach of looking and seeking doesn’t work for me. Having said that, while I don’t go looking, per se, I’m receptive to my environment and also to what’s going on internally. From there, I am always writing down sentences on scraps of paper or typing them into my phone. I’m also lucky to have three separate writing partners who I trust and with whom I feel safe so when we write together, and ideas come, I can let them flow onto the page.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of essay writing? How do you overcome those challenges?
Me[redith]: The most challenging part is when there is a gap between what I’m trying to say and what is actually on the page. This often becomes evident when I’ve let someone read the piece and they “want” it to be something it is not ever going to be. I’ve learned to realize this is likely because the piece is not done yet. This brings me back to that gap, the one between what I’m trying to say and what is actually on the page.
What advice do you have for aspiring essayists?
Me[redith]: Concern yourself with the quality of what you publish rather than the quantity. That also goes for where you publish – quality first.
Claire McKinney PR, is a publicity firm that works with traditional, hybrid, and self-published authors in marketing, branding, and publicizing their books. Claire specializes in campaigns for books, authors, educational programs, websites, art, film, and other intellectual properties. The agency also has a blog on which they share knowledge and experiences with authors who are interested in book marketing and promotion.
Meredith: Is there a different way that the media-shy author/writer can view promoting his or her book when the constant “putting it out there” feels out of line with their inner calling/sense of self?
Claire: If you are a novelist in this position, the best thing to do is rely on the internet and social media outlets. You will have to at least write to bloggers to see if they will review your book, but you don’t have to constantly be on Twitter and Facebook. It would be a good idea to also have a website for the book as a destination for when reviews of your book are posted. Ask family and friends to read your book and post reviews on Amazon, that will help with your profile there. You can also set up an author page on Amazon and Goodreads. For a non-fiction author, you probably need to have an interest in putting yourself out there because in your case, your expertise and credentials are going to help get the book noticed.
Meredith: I’m hearing less outward chatter about “platform building” than I did five years ago. Does that mean it’s really gone? What does it mean?
Claire: I think the reason you are hearing less chatter is because it’s become a part of the promotion process as a whole. Everything people are doing these days online and in other places is helping to build a platform. Individuals and their works have to be recognized “brands” out in the world or at least to their target audiences. So, no the “platform” is here to stay and actually “branding” may be what’s replaced the term.
Meredith: Is bad publicity really good publicity? (As in the adage, there is no such thing as bad publicity)?
Claire: It depends a bit on the kind of publicity you receiving. Negative book reviews are never good, but a public argument or controversy about your subject or a tangential topic can be good for raising awareness about you, the book, and your ideas in general.
Meredith: With so many people using various communication methods (YouTube, Constant Contact, websites, texts, Facebook) what can authors do to set themselves apart? And when should the process begin?
Claire: I think the way to set yourself apart as an author is to decide what it is YOU are sharing with the world with your work no matter the genre. Are you trying to help people? Enlighten? Entertain? Then consider what you feel comfortable doing. You might like writing in 140 character blocks or love to be on camera or writing personal essays, speaking in front of an audience, etc. Pick your media forms and then either feed them content or approach them from a place of integrity–with the work and with yourself. People can tell the difference between someone who is faking it and someone who is real.
As to when the process should start? As soon as you are finished with the book if not before. It depends a bit on which media you choose but no matter what, starting to build yourself and your “brand” will help to set you apart.
Meredith: Has self-promotion interfered with real promotion of books by overexposing a person or a work to the extent that people are sick of receiving word? I think this is a question on the minds of a lot of writers.
Claire: I think again, if you consider your promotion as a way of sharing ideas, you will be perceived less as a salesperson. Keep you and the book a bit separate at first so that the awareness of the subject and/or story can build out from what you’ve started. Don’t start marketing the book specifically, until about four months ahead of publication. Also, if you have a contact list that you are going to enlist to help you get the word out, divide those names into groups: People who will want to know you have a book coming; People who may be interested in the book; People who can help you get media attention; Colleagues/Professionals. The first group will want to know right away; the second and third closer to the book’s publication; and the final may only want to receive a note about the book when it’s finished or even a signed copy with a personal note tucked inside.
[Thank you, Claire!]
When we moved my sister, who is an interior decorator, helped me set up our house. Set up as in decorate.
I, alone, can tell you when a finished room looks good, but I can’t begin to tell you how to put it together. My spatial skills are barely adequate. She, on the other hand, can eyeball a room, go to the store and tell you what will fit where, and what will go with it. When you get the furniture home, it works.
The problem with how I “decorate” is that I tend to make everything the same – even if each piece is utterly unique. Too much color, too much busy, too much monochromatic – fill in your own “too much.” I do mosaics, and I love them, and I’d decorate my entire house with them – which I kind of did in our last place. But even I noticed, before we moved, it was getting difficult to “see” them as individuals, and worse, they started competing with each other for attention. Instead of my eye glancing around the room, it was more like a ping pong ball (pardon the cliche). Not a federal offense, but not great, either.
“It’s hard to know what’s important to look at in the room when everything is in it is the same,” my sister told me. “Then nothing is important, and it defeats the purpose for having an important piece.”
As I get inside long-form writing, I need different ways of looking at the different elements that are essential to writing well. Basically, I’m willful, and I want to write what I want to write, and I want people to like it. But it doesn’t work that way, just like it doesn’t work when you’re decorating your home. People will come over and tell you they love your mosaic table, or your this or that – individual things…but what you (I) really want is for the visitor to tell me they love my house, that it’s a place they want to stay, to relax in, to spend time. I want people to say this about my book/manuscript. More than telling me they love my writing (though who doesn’t love that?), I want them to love the story I’m writing, to want to read it, to say it moved them, that it was unforgettable in the best possible way. Don’t you?
Since my sister started to help me decorate I’ve been thinking about “show, don’t tell” differently. When I go into the manuscript, I try to see where the expository parts include information that is essential to the reader knowing the character and to moving the story along. Some exposition is appropriate to inform, info that’s not going to be shown in a scene because it’s not happening in the real time of the manuscript. I do this when I’m editing, not when I’ve writing. To use the decorating analogy, I bring the chair home and see how it looks next to the window, or I move it to the bedroom. Sometimes I return it, and buy something else. The goal is for it to fit, to look great in its place. If it is meant to be the focal point, that it should do that very, very well.
If the decorating analogy doesn’t strike a chord, maybe my “getting-dressed” one will. Exposition can be like buttons and button holes – they help close the garment in order for it to be wearable. The buttons should be attractive, too, but they don’t need to be the entire length of material that makes the shirt. They simply close gaps. However, if the focal point of the story is the garment being torn off, those buttons better pop in the most spectacular way.
How do you think about the elements of writing to support your storytelling?
Before I began writing professionally (and for a long time while I was), I was a therapist. Therapists are dedicated to confidentiality and bound to it by law, except in very specific cases. As a writer, how do I reconcile writing essays that include other people while writing a really good essay as well?
It’s difficult and sometimes takes a really long time.
I want to acknowledge that I’ve come across writers who feel that their story, their truth and how they want to say it, has a right to its voice. On the page. In public. I totally get that. The once-massive publishing empires (and the smaller ones, too) who have had to re-find their audiences online as print takes a backseat seem to get that, too. It seems like the internet is full of those stories, over-shared essays (though fashioned with lovely essay techniques like imagery and voice) that have been written a few beats before the author had enough insight to write about them. Many of these essays are longer than they need to be and include minutely crafted details that are very well written but skate the line of self-revelation and veer into something else entirely.
That something else is what keeps me up at night when I’m working on an essay.
In relationships, in therapy, the point is to be open and real, to dig more deeply and release resentment. To me, essays are about relationships and so similar guidelines apply. In relationships there are hurts and betrayals and fears and joys, but not all of those things are for public consumption–and really, should they be? A good essay, for example, will show how the resentment started and hopefully how shift in the author’s perception occurred, a perception that allowed the author to release the resentment and then write about it. These essays stay with us and as writers we’re proud of them, not because of the clicks and the compliments, but because of the changes we actually made inside and, secondly, our ability to document that shift in essay format.
What if “my truth” ends up not being “the truth” and someone else–not me as the writer–suffers? The fact is, I’ll suffer as well. The thing with some personal topics is that, because we ourselves are so inside the story, we have blind spots to it and to ourselves. When criticism comes (and it often does) we are thrown and hurt. We regret having gone public. With the internet, everything lives on. One way to look at the “why” of the personal essay is as a vehicle to understand our way out of the old stories we tell ourselves, and give them a richer, more universally personal meaning…on the page. That takes time because insight takes time to develop.
Certain stories need not be told. Others must be told. The question is, how to tell them. When it comes to personal essays, who is the story really about? The story, the essay, is always about the writer.
So, how can I reasonably maintain another’s privacy as I write about finding my own truth and a larger universal truth, especially when those people I mention in the essay helped me—knowingly or not—find it (perhaps the hard way, but still)?
Here are some ideas, some general guidelines I use for myself, and suggest my writing clients consider:
Keep the focus on myself. I focus on myself, on the lessons I learned—about me. Having this ground rule requires discipline, but it has helped me create works that go deeper and wider than I ever could have imagined.
Grasp the deeper meaning and higher purpose of “The Essay.” The personal essay is a true story that utilizes select personal details from my life, to reveal a lesson I learned that deepened my understanding of myself, that proceeds to reveal a greater, wider universal truth beyond me. So, it’s about me, but it’s also not about me (that’s the universal truth part).
No gossip. Don’t “write” behind someone’s back. I might not have learned a lesson or reality about myself had this person not been in my life.
The relationship comes first. I place the relationship, rather than the story of the relationship, as the priority.
The discomfort test. If a person mentioned in the essay reads the essay, the only reason I would want to feel true discomfort would be with what I reveal about myself.
Kids grow up and learn to read. Enough said.
Lay-my-head-on-the-pillow test. If a piece I’m writing is causing me so much anxiety and fear that I can’t sleep (yes, it’s happened), I put it aside and reevaluate later. Sometimes I’m anxious because I’m working out the meaning of a situation, other times I’m anxious because I feel/know that the piece is relying too much on the “shocking” details that might elicit page views today.
Finally, keep in mind, this is not about stifling your voice but in grounding yourself in self-discovery and documenting that with integrity.
“Some things cross my path…I don’t think I can force ideas. I usually see something and it causes my brain to spin.”
-Claudine McCormack Jalajas
Claudine McCormack Jalajas is an expert writer in the field of technical writing and learning, and the author of the contemporary weaving book Beaded Bracelets. For eighteen years she has been involved in proprietary computer software documentation and training for many Fortune 500 companies across the United States. She is also the designer of beaded art, creator of original designs that are worn or displayed in the home. Her enthusiasm for bead stitching is obvious through her constant development of jewelry (she confesses bracelets are her favorite).
I wanted to find out how she moves so fluidly between right- and left-brain states, and so asked her to muse on the following question. Her answer relates to writers of fiction and nonfiction—just substitute the words beads and thread for pen and paper.
In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes, “Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it.” It’s kind of a corollary to that line in the Eagles song, “Already Gone”: “So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” I asked about her view, as well as if she actively seeks ideas for her creations, or if her style was to wait and see what crosses her path and then allow her own vision to develop.
by Claudine McCormack Jalajas
“I’m not sure possession is the correct word. I admit that I have little piles of beads and crystals on side tables in the living room, back sitting room, my bedroom, and my office. I carry a little container of beads or a project in my bag (just in case I get some free time—nothing makes a long train commute go faster). Sometimes on the train to work I will suddenly think of an idea and sketch the possibility on a piece of paper, napkin, sticky note, back of deposit slip, anything I can find so I don’t forget (because I will). I like to look at designs by other people too. Often I will begin making their pattern and imagine a way I’d like to modify it. It’s similar to cooking for me. I see a recipe and think, “that looks interesting…. I’d bet it’d be great with rosemary and goat cheese…” And so I start to change the way it’s written and then soon it’s completely new and my own. I’m not averse to doing what other people do—sometimes they have really cool ideas. I just have a habit of seeing what else could be done. I’m sure people do that to my designs as well. When someone tells me that something I taught them inspired them to make something else I’m completely flattered.
“At night, once everyone’s in bed [she’s married and has three kids] and I’m pretty sure I won’t get interrupted; I will take a threaded needle and start putting beads together to see how they will fall. Beads don’t always behave the way you imagine. More times than I’d like to admit, what I think will happen doesn’t actually happen. But a lot of ideas for things come from those mistakes. I rarely pull things back apart because I can reuse parts of the beadwork to develop something else. I came up with a snowflake pattern once when I was trying to remember an earring pattern (instead of just pulling out my own directions). Once I realized I was making a mistake I realized it would make a great snowflake so I just kept going.
“I keep all my beads and supplies in various small bins. One of those bins happens to be a bunch of half-created pieces and mistakes. I don’t like to waste beads but it’s not a waste for me for two reasons. One, I don’t always have time to create the whole piece because I need to write the instructions and teach it. Once I’m sure it will do what I want, I stop working with the beads and get writing. Also, when I was in college an accounting professor told us to never erase mistakes—just cross them out. You may realize later you weren’t completely wrong and need to reuse what you did OR you can use it to avoid going down the same path. We were encouraged to keep our mistakes in plain view. I guess that idea always stuck with me. You just never know. So I take pieces out sometimes and see what it would look like if I placed them this way or that way.
“Bead weaving is time consuming; recreating all that work every time would be awful. So reusing portions works well. Just the other day I was trying to come up with a necklace design. I used 3 strands of previously created tubular herringbone and as I was aligning the pieces realized it would make a great bracelet. The creating–it just never stops. (Um, okay, maybe I am possessed?)
“When I first got my book deal I was in a panic that I couldn’t come up with enough ideas—25 bracelets? No way—couldn’t be done. I wound up with more than I could put in the book and had to have friends over one night and asked them to help me pick out which ones went in the book and which didn’t. It was a nice problem to have. And even after I was done my brain just saw bracelet ideas everywhere.
“Some things cross my path…I don’t think I can force ideas. I usually see something and it causes my brain to spin. It could be colors (sunset—bright oranges and deep purple are awesome together) the wooded roadway (deep greens, blue sky, deep brown tree trunks) on the way to taking my daughter to her horseback riding lessons, or a sign on the side of the road outside Tupper Lake that makes me realize that a woven basket has some really cool texture to it and might look great as a bracelet cuff.”
JESSICA GADSDEN is the publisher and co-founder of Penner Publishing. She is a graduate of Smith College with a degree in English Language & Literature. Additionally, she graduated from Cornell Law School. In addition to being a lifelong reader and lover of books, Gadsden is a traditionally and self-published author.
MEREDITH: With all the manuscripts that cross your desk, what is the internal experience between the one you know is “the one” and all the others—even if all the others are quite good?
JESSICA: I’m reading one now, that I can’t stop thinking about. My heart gives a little skip of excitement. I start thinking about how to reach the readers that would love this book. That’s how I know. Truthfully, I’m thinking about it now, wanting to get back to it while I’m answering these questions.
MEREDITH: How do you view rejection? What greater purpose does it serve in the creative process—for the writer?
JESSICA: As a published author, I’ve been on both sides of rejection. Now that I’m one of the people making the decisions, rejection comes in two forms. The first is a book that’s not ready for publication. It may have a great premise and great story, but the writing’s not quite there yet. The second is a book that is wonderful and lovely, but doesn’t fit a publisher’s vision.
In the past, I’ve seen both kinds of rejection with personalized notes. I’d tell authors if it’s a generic note, not to read anything into it. You may write wonderful inspirational novels or titilating erotica, but if the publisher isn’t in either of those markets or is saturated in those markets, you should find the right match for you and your story.
If a writer, gets thirty, forty, fifty rejections, however, he or she should probably reevaluate the work. I suggest beta readers or critique partners. They may help flesh out issues the writer isn’t seeing.
In the end, writers must be true to their vision. JK Rowling got rejected. But she was blazing a new trail that others couldn’t see.
MEREDITH: What’s the deal with platform, honestly? And I mean, as an editor, how do you really (and I mean, really) determine when enough is enough? I know writers who scramble to get this many Twitter followers, or that many Facebook likes, only to be disappointed to find out that some other author has double, or triple or fifty times the amount. There has to be something more substantial than simply one’s persona in the world. Yes, I know, the work needs to hold up. However, so often we see published works that struggle to hold up. Can you help us understand the whys, and hows?
JESSICA: Here’s the deal with platform. Readers know in this new techno-millenium that they can connect with their favorite authors. Readers and fans love that ability to connect with authors. And many want to.
I remember writing a fan letter to one of my favorite authors while I was in college. I was obsessed with her and her books. If I could have scoured her website or tweeted to her, I would have been her devotee for life. (This was, ahem, before that time).
However, we caution all authors that writing comes first. If an author has a wonderful book and no platform to speak of, we’d still publish the book.
MEREDITH: Inside the publishing house, does the editor kind of, sort of, have to have an internal “platform (there’s that word again!) with the marketing and promotions department? How does that whole behind-the-scenes selection process go, and what do you or will you help your authors understand?
JESSICA: Unlike a big NY house, we’re not running the acquisition process through marketing or PR. Instead, we’re doing it the other way ’round. The explosion in self-publishing has taught us that readers have very wide tastes. Our goal is to match book to readers, hopefully lots of them. At Penner, we love strong, troubled heroes and heroines.
My friends and fellow readers love them too, but can’t find enough of them. The same is true for all sorts of books. I want to bring wonderfully written, complex, and different stories to the readers that crave them.
MEREDITH: As an editor, what gives you the sense that, even if the story or the writing is not pristine or stellar, that this is an author who will be amenable to being edited. Is it just a good story, or something in addition?
JESSICA: We find that an author’s willingness to make changes often comes through in the query letter. Some authors are more amenable to edits, input than others.
JESSICA SAYS: “We are open to submissions from agents, published, and unpublished authors alike. The books we’re looking for and looking to acquire will be romance and women’s fiction driven by strong heroines. We ask agents to submit a proposal. Authors should check our submissions page for our current requirements.”
[Thank you, Jessica!]