Allison K Williams on Reading Deeper and Writing Better
Allison K Williams is a writer, editor, speaker, and writing coach.
A memoirist, essay writer and travel journalist, Allison K Williams has written for National Public Radio, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others.
Allison’s fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, Smokelong Quarterly and Deep South; her essays in Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner, The Drum and Brevity. Her humor writing was a Mark Twain Award winner; she has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize
When it comes to dispensing practical wisdom on becoming a better writer, Allison is the best I’ve met. Many gems in this interview. Enjoy!
You’ve coached and mentored many writers. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of less than stellar writing. What patterns do you find in bad writing? For example, the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker said that one explanation for bad prose is “The Curse of Knowledge”—the writer doesn’t realize that the reader doesn’t know what she knows. Does that ring true?
Absolutely! I see enough patterns that I teach a workshop/webinar, Self-Edit Like A Pro, because everyone makes the exact same mistakes when they start out. There are two kinds of writers—Curse of Knowledge writers, who leave stuff out because they assume everyone knows, or they don’t want to be obvious; and over-writers, who put everything on the page regardless of relevance and say it five or six times to make sure we get it.
The best things writers can do for their work:
1) Learn the technical craft. Learn to punctuate dialogue correctly and use dialogue tags well. Learn what a prepositional phrase is and notice how more than one in a row or two in a sentence is confusing because prepositional phrases shift the reader in time or space. Learn to put your strongest words at the beginnings and ends of sentences. Learn to cut unnecessary words—which doesn’t mean cutting to the bone unless that’s your voice, but start by going through all the “thats” and taking out most of them, and then notice what else you overuse.
Most craft info is available for free at the library and online, and craft must be practiced by rote until it becomes a natural part of the writer’s voice. I’ve heard “But it’s about the stooooooooory” nine million times and no it fucking isn’t. It’s about learning to tell the story in the best and most precise language that the reader can receive, because none of us—none of us!—are good enough to make the reader wade through shit to get to the prize. Put the time in to be worthy of the reader’s time.
2) Don’t just read a lot, re-read a lot. The first time through a book, relax and enjoy it. Read it again a few months later and this time follow the clues in the mystery, or pick out particularly nice phrases, or notice how the writer sets up a character to be hated and then loved, or to have our love for them turned to hate. The vast majority of first-time writers truly, genuinely, cannot see the difference between their first draft and the book on the shelf. They can’t see that the plot is tangled or the description is hackneyed or the story has no tension, because they only know how reading a book makes them feel. They’ve admired the painting without noticing that the people in the park are made of tiny dots, and up close, some of those dots aren’t the colors they seem to be from five feet away.
Think about how we learn to have good sex—sure, we start with fumbling in a car, but we read or watch porn, and talk to friends, and we have good partners who teach us, and we recognize that yes, there’s passion and emotional connection, but there’s also paying attention and being physically precise and learning to do the things our partner loves. People often assume sex and writing are innate talents, when in fact they are learned skills.
You can be a good writer and sell books if you have moderate-to-OK craft and tell a great story, But you cannot be a great writer without a respect for words that involves learning to use them properly. Language is a powerful tool. Maintain it and oil it and use it with care.
And take a playwriting class–everyone gets better at structure when writing scripts, and you can really hear what’s not working when you hear it out loud.
Steven Pressfield once said he learned to tell a story by writing screenplays. An improv troupe of mine recently read a bunch of plays by Tennessee Williams, Tom Stoppard, Sam Shepard, etc. Who are some playwrights you recommend to your writing students?
Closer by Patrick Marber – he does great things with shifting time between scenes without being overly obvious or too hard to follow.
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard – it’ll take two or three reads to track the stories in the past and present, but the way he handles intermeshed plots is brilliant.
Rumors by Neil Simon and everything else he’s written – he’s great at straight American comedy and finding character voice.
Shakespeare. Lots and lots of Shakespeare. And I suggest seeing the plays before reading them, because they are much easier to follow on the page if you’ve already heard the words. Look for how characters are driven to their own destinies because they have such a strong will for a particular thing they can’t turn away from even a dangerous and horrible path. If there’s not a play you can go see right now, read Titus Andronicus, which is the original slasher/horror show. It’s like Saw up there. But everything gross and gory is rooted in character logic and character drive that is realistic within the play. Another great thing about Shakespeare is it reminds us that villains are heros in their own story. Lord Capulet is genuinely trying to stop Juliet from doing something dumb that will ruin her future, by forcing her to marry Paris. He’s not an asshole. He’s a devastated father watching his daughter try to throw her life away. OK, he’s also a bit of an asshole.
The Dramatist’s Toolkit is a good book to start writing plays with. By Jeffrey Sweet, another big improv guy.
Arcadia was incredible. I second that recommendation. Going back to re-reading: I tend to read with pen in hand the first time, but I still enjoy it, even though I’m constantly analyzing. How should writers plan their reading with an eye toward improvement?
I just bought an old, wrecked copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak at a library sale, to mark up and make notes in. But I think you don’t have to be that extreme. I’ve said the process of learning an art goes in three stages: Be impressed, identify the tools, learn to use the tools. So copy down that beautiful paragraph, and then analyze why it works—is it the flow, the voice, the way they anchor sentences with strong nouns at the end? Then write something parallel—same sentence structure, different nouns and verbs and adjectives. Then write your own version entirely, seeing how that voice or structure or style aligns with your own voice, and how it can influence the way you write your own voice.
And read a lot by one author. Notice how their writing matures as they gain experience. Early Dorothy Sayers is almost Agatha Christie—body, detective, killer, guilty. Late Dorothy Sayers is a glorious tragicomedy of manners in which the murder victim is almost an aside. Robert Heinlein (rest his perverted little soul) went from space westerns to examining how artificial intelligence could foment revolution in a totalitarian society. JK Rowling went from “whee, we’re wizards!” to a powerful moral epic centering on doing good when it doesn’t do you any good, and why it’s important to make that choice. There’s a lot to be said for authors who started as pure genre and crossed into something bigger, and I find them more fun to read than most contemporary literary fiction.
I feel that while reading should be immensely enjoyable it’s also a strategic choice. There are more good books than anyone can read. As a humor writer, I read and dissect things that make me laugh, but I also want to read classic fiction, interesting nonfiction, plays, poetry. You could argue that I should be reading graphic novels and Harlequins and biographies, and on and on.
How do you think about the professional writer’s reading list?
When I moved in with my now-husband in Dubai, he owned 8 books and 7 of them were Game of Thrones. Living abroad, without my hundreds of books, has made me very conscious of why I acquire a new book, or which ones I add to my suitcase on a trip back to the USA. I’m typically reading several books at once:
Teen Vogue and Vogue (September issue!) as research for a character who would read them
Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson) for pleasure
Slowly working through a French textbook because at some point I’d like to translate an early Moliere play.
New Yorker online because I like the essays and it’s moderate news, New York Times ditto and I want to publish more in it.
The Story Cure by Dinty W Moore, who is my favorite mentor and I’m enjoying what he has to say about book structure,
Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass, to better structure the YA novel I’m writing.
Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley (on my phone), ditto.
Out on the Wire, a graphic novel about making radio by Jessica Abel with Ira Glass, which I’m reviewing.
Romeo and Juliet (again) because I just choreographed the fights for a college production.
Guidebook on Taiwan because I’m going there.
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerrard because I’m also from Florida and I’m trying to be better at essays. That’s the bathroom book!
So I’m always trying to read something that’s research, something that’s fun, and something that’s going to make me a better writer. And I think by picking up a lot of books at once, it helps us see connections between them. Snow Crash is the only one I’m reading straight through, the rest are dip-in-every-other-day. But when I read Donald Maass talking about character darkness and scenic moments, or Ira Glass talking about the entry point for a story, I can see those things in action in what I’m reading for fun. Even Vogue—magazine article structure is a classic letter-e structure, and it’s cool to see that technique in the wild.
Do you have any rules that you abide by as a writer? i.e. A personal code you follow.
I’m not an especially religious person, but I have two things I believe with the force of sacred law.
1. It is a mortal sin to lie on the page. I can choose not to write about something, I can choose to tell a different side of the story, or I can tell the truth. In fiction, this means honestly knowing my characters and knowing the craft and putting the work in to make their choices and actions real within their world. In nonfiction, this means I’m willing to put down the bits that make me look really, really bad. I’m willing to be shitty and selfish and mean on the page, because leaving those things out would be lying.
2. People who have the time/dedication to build their craft, and the talent/craft to make words on the page that others enjoy reading, have an obligation. If you can take the journey, you owe the story to the people who can’t take the journey, or who took it but can’t tell the story. Those of us lucky enough to have the desire, ability, and time to write must speak to and for the people who don’t or can’t. I believe this is a sacred trust, that the price of artistic ability is to use it as fully and faithfully as I can.
Who is a writer you find underrated?
I totally freaked out Andre Dubus III during a workshop because I advocated for Judith Krantz. Yes, that Judith Krantz. Scruples, Princess Daisy, Scruples Two—the highest of high trash. What I love about Krantz is how great she is at weaving in multiple important characters, and her formula works very well for memoir: Introduce the new character at a place where they are directly impacting the protagonist’s journey. Detour back into the new character’s life, and show us how they got here and what they want. Let us see how that’s going to thwart or conflict with the protagonist. Bring us forward in time to meeting the protagonist. Move further forward from there. It’s a classic “letter e” structure that we also use for magazine articles and radio stories. Cringe your way through one of her books some time—you can find them at most thrift stores—and see if you don’t also get caught up in the glorious shopping-and-fucking camp of the whole genre.
What’s a belief that you used to have that held you back? How did you let go of it?
I used to think (nebulously) that there was some magic graduation ceremony or anointing when I’d be allowed to call myself a “real” writer. Newsflash—no-one ever gives you permission. You are what you say you are. Actors used to ask me how I became a director, and the answer was that I started telling people I was one. Yes, of course you have to be able to back it up, but you’re never going to feel fully confident in your own work 100% of the time, so don’t wait for the Literature Fairy to appear in a cloud of glitter and tell you you’re a real writer. Just claim it.
What’s something that you’ve learned while marketing or selling yourself as a writer?
Before I was a writer, I was a street performer. My partners and I put up a 25-foot tripod and did trapeze and aerial silks and fire-eating at festivals and events. Much of the time we passed the hat at the end of the show, and passing the hat means stopping the show right before the finale and letting the audience know you’re going to be asking them for money in a few minutes—this is your hat-pass line, and the line directly affects how much money you make. A hat-pass line always includes a statement that this is really how we make our living, and we are happy to be doing this work. The paradox of a good hat-pass line is that the more genuinely we mean “our salaries are your smiles, your laughter, and your applause,” the more truly we say it from our hearts, the more we believe that their response is enough, the more money shows up in the hat. The audience can tell when you mean it.
Writing works the same way, especially writing on social media. “Platform” is lame and sad when it’s not really you, and the audience can smell it. They know you’re faking, or you’re trying to be clever, or you’re selling a slick brand instead of being a real person. We’ve all muted those accounts that keep posting links to their book. It’s the same paradox—the more genuine and truthful and honest we can be in public (to whatever border of privacy we are willing to go), the more we connect with readers and colleagues who want to hear what we have to say, and yes, want to buy our book or click our link.
I’m very self-revelatory. I kept an anonymous sex blog for a year, some time ago, so there’s not a lot that scares me to tell. Not everyone’s going to be comfortable laying it all out there, and you don’t have to be. But don’t be fake.
For a deeper dive into Allison’s writing advice, get her book, Get Published In Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting and Writing Better