SPEAKERS: Ronit Plank, Allison K. Williams


Ronit Plank: Welcome, Allison.

Allison K. Williams: Hi, Ronit. I am so psyched to be here.

Ronit Plank: I’m so happy to have you here. And I’m so happy that you’re happy to be here. I just–I’ve been following your work. I mean I knew about you for years and years before we started communicating on Facebook, the Writer’s Bridge, and in the community. Didn’t you win an award at HippoCamp?

Allison K. Williams: I did.

Ronit Plank: Tell me about that award. What was that?

Allison K. Williams: So in 2021, I was named the Literary Citizen of the Year at the Hippo Camp Creative Non-Fiction Conference. And it was so funny because Donna Talarico, who is the Editor-in-Chief of Hippocampus, which is the magazine that sponsors the conference, she was standing up at the podium. And you know, I’m like, in the back, where I sit. And I have my laptop open, and I’m making some notes for myself about people I need to follow up with and everything. And Donna starts kicking in and saying, “Oh, this person does this, and this person does that.” And I’m like, “Wow. That person sounds really cool.”

Ronit Plank: (laughs)

Allison K. Williams: He really deserved this award. And then, all of a sudden, she called my name and I’m like “Wait – what?

Ronit Plank: Aww.

Allison K. Williams: But it was a real honor. Because I really came to a decision, and when we talk about why I wrote Seven Drafts, one of the reasons is that not everybody can afford an editor. Not everybody can afford to go to a workshop. Not everybody can afford to go to a fancy residency. And so, I really wanted to put everything that I knew into one place, where people can get most of what I have to say about writing for $17.95, or they can get it from their public library for free.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: And I really made a resolution that I wanted to value my time by no longer doing nickel-and-dime gigs. Like I would rather do a big chunk of stuff for free, like speaking at conferences that don’t have a huge budget. Like blogging for Brevity. Like being on a beautiful podcast like this, where I can speak to writers, and then not work for cheap. And that’s something that I would really encourage anybody whose selling their creative services. Find out what you’re really happy to give away and give it away with both hands. And then charge top dollar for the stuff you want to be paid for.

Ronit Plank: Oh, my gosh. That’s brilliant. I don’t think I realized that that equation works so well, but it makes sense. That way–I think what you’re saying is, you don’t have to feel badly about charging what you’re worth to writers who may or may not have the money. Because the people who have the money and the funds, that are motivated to hire you for that top dollar, to help with their book or their projects, can do it. And then the rest of the people who can’t access your resources.

Allison K. Williams: Exactly. Exactly. I spent before I was a full-time writer and editor, I spent many years as a full-time circus performer, and a lot of what I did was street performing. And I really love how–when I set up that trapeze rig on the street–and my partners and I did fire-eating and whip-cracking, and acrobatics, and aerial fabrics. And at the end of the show, everybody got to see the show. And then the people who can afford to pay put money in our hat, and subsidized the people who can’t afford to pay. But everybody got to see the show. And I love that, you know?

So I do some personal coaching. I do some fancy destination retreats. But I also do the Writer’s Bridge, and speak to writers, every other week, for an hour about building platforms and how to get their words into the world. And I love balancing giving stuff away with doing what I love for a living.

Ronit Plank: I have a list of questions, Allison, that I’m dying to dive into. But you’ve already said so much that I want to kind of get to right now. First of all, the circus thing, which I’ve heard about. And I’ve seen some photos from your Instagram about that. Can you just give me a little bit of background about how you came to become a circus performer, and how long you did that?

Allison K. Williams: Yeah. So when I was a little girl, my birthday came around at the same time of year that the circus came to town in St. Petersburg, Florida. And we were the first stop every year for the new Ringling Brothers show, and my grandmother took me every single year. I always thought it was wonderful. I got into Ringling Brothers as a dancing girl but decided to go to theater school instead. Also got accepted to Clown College but decided to continue in theater school instead.

But once I started teaching, as a professor, at Western Michigan University–I was, you know, 24, 25 years old at that point. I had never done well in gymnastics. I had never been a particularly good dancer. Not really a whole lot of physical skill. When I started, I could not do a single pullup.

Ronit Plank: Oh, wow!

Allison K. Williams: And I had a couple of students who were really into aerial, which was brand-new then. Nowadays, every single yoga studio has an aerial yoga class. But back then, nobody had seen it or heard about it. And two of my students were into it, and wanted to practice, and they had equipment, and I had keys to the theater.

So we started practicing together, and we thought “This is so cool. We should do a show.” And I had done a little bit of performing at Renaissance Festivals around the country, and thought “Okay, that’s really neat,” and we started doing those. And then we also started doing these things called Busker Festivals, that happen all over Canada and all over Europe. And then we got into doing corporate events, where, you know, we’re hiding in the ceiling, and then the music kicks in, and we do a big routine, and then we slide down and give Rolex watches to the Salespeople of the Year.

Ronit Plank: (laughs)

Allison K. Williams: And I just loved it so, so much. And I did that for 10 or 11 years, I think.

Ronit Plank: Wow.

Allison K. Williams: And then I started to hit a stage where I was like okay. I am getting a little bit older. My knees feel a little bit crappier the next day. My muscles take a little bit longer to heal. And, gosh, I’m standing between two 24-year-olds, and we’re all wearing the same spandex outfit.

Ronit Plank: (laughs)

Allison K. Williams: And I had always been a writer. I had always–I think I’m also an editor by nature. And I started doing more of that and then transitioned out of circus after about 15 years total.

Ronit Plank: Okay. So I was actually thinking to ask you, where did writing come in? Because it sounds like you’re a natural performer, and I do get this question sometimes because I used to do theater and film a little bit. And people ask me sometimes “How do they merge, or what skills do you take from that previous career into writing?” And what about you? Would you say that there’s any crossover for you?

Allison K. Williams: Well, I’m sure you know that, as actors, we do so much text analysis, and we think about dramatic arc, and we think about dramatic structure. And we stand on stage, and we think to ourselves “Huh. Why is my character in this scene? What do I want here?” And I often tell writers “We would be better writers if our characters looked up at us from the page and said, ‘Um, excuse me. Why am I in this scene? What is my purpose here?’”

Ronit Plank: (laughs)

Allison K. Williams: And I had been writing my own words since I was a little kid dictating to my mom before I could hold a pencil. And then I started this practice, when I was in middle school, and writing terrible middle-school poetry. And before a poem could go in my beautiful hardback journal with the silver unicorn on it, it had to be exactly right. And so, I would copy and re-copy everything I wrote, rewriting the entire thing again and again, and taking out any words that didn’t belong.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: And so that’s been my natural instinct, and I think I’ve always been an editor. And so, I had done casual editing for friends, and then I got my MFA, in playwriting actually, and that taught me so much about structure, about character arc, about motivation, and about what a scene is. And I started editing for money, and I was like “Oh, wow. This is really cool. This is an actual job.”

Ronit Plank: Yeah. Great.

Allison K. Williams: And I found, too, that I love teaching, and that teaching really fills that performer part of me.

Ronit Plank: Ah, yes, yes, yes. I do feel that too. And when I have taught, I feel like that idea of taking the space over, and not being afraid of being the center of attention–and trying to communicate really taps into that, and the authority, which is different somehow. Because when I was acting, I didn’t always feel like I had authority. I would be a little insecure about what I was conveying, or my choices sometimes. But as a teacher, the more you do it, I feel like, the more confidence you get. And it’s really affirming, I feel like, especially for people who have done theater.

So this is really interesting to me, that you kind of always were an editor. And also what I’m hearing, which is really different from my approach is, when I was younger, no matter what I embarked on, I wanted to just be good at it out of the gate. I just had this idea that if I found the right thing, I would just be good at it, and wouldn’t need to work at it, which is hilarious. But it sounds like you knew, early on, no matter what it was that you were pursuing, that it took work, and you had to keep trying to get what you wanted into the world. Would you say that’s accurate?

Allison K. Williams: I think so. And I think some of it, too, was what I learned about tools. And this is something that I try to teach other authors as well: having the right tools can really be a make or break. And whether those tools are your typewriter or the way you arrange your calendar; I didn’t write very much at all, between about fifth grade and about tenth grade, because the act of writing physically hurt my hand. And this was just about when word processors were starting to come in. We didn’t all have laptops at home, but we all had Atari.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: And when I got this typewriter, that let you type a whole sentence, and then fix it, and then you’d hit “return,” and it would print the whole sentence, it was like a light switched on for me. And for tenth-grade English class, I did this research paper that turned out to be my entire grade because I basically did no other assignments. But I wrote a 37 or 38-page research paper that was portraits of different people I knew from the Renaissance Festival, and what their lives were like.

Ronit Plank: Mmm.

Allison K. Williams: And even looking back now, yeah–I was in high school, but it was a very, sort of, documentary-oriented project, and I never would have done it if I had had to write it by hand.

Ronit Plank: Yeah. And so, what I notice about Seven Drafts is that it’s incredibly dense. It’s chock-full, and I mean that in an amazing way. There’s so many resources. There’s so much, and I feel like you get to the heart of things really succinctly. So, can you just explain, a little bit, about the book, now that we know what inspired you to write it? Just a little bit about the book for people who don’t yet have it.

Allison K. Williams: Yeah, absolutely. So, many years ago, I was speaking to a writing group in Bombay, India. And somebody asked me, “Well, how many drafts does it take?” because I was saying, “It always takes more drafts than you think.” And I said, “Okay. Well, you need a draft to just get it on the page. That’s your ‘vomit’ draft. You need a draft to really think about the story, and make sure that hangs together. One, where you polish up the characters; you need a draft where you go through and just fix all the sentences. Then you copy-edit it really nice and then incorporate feedback from a friend. And then you call in your professional favor, or you pay money, and get a professional-quality read.” And I was like “Oh, seven. It takes seven drafts.”

Ronit Plank: (laughs)

Allison K. Williams: I wanted to organize most of what I know about writing in a way that is a little bit overwhelming. I had a hashtag that a writer friend created for me, and it’s fire-hosed me–because people say that coming to my workshops is like getting hit in the face with a firehose full of information.

Ronit Plank: (laughs)

Allison K. Williams: I always tell people “You’ve got to watch the replay. Even if you’re here live, you’ve got to watch the replay.”

Ronit Plank: Yeah.

Allison K. Williams: And so the book is organized in the order that you might write a book in, and you can go through it in any order that you like. And there’s actually a handy self-editing checklist at the back where if you want, you can just go through the section that applies to your work the most and use those elements.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: But I really just wanted it to be a little bit more methodical. I was talking to another editor earlier tonight, and we were saying that even in an MFA program, workshopping is not the same thing as teaching the skill of writing. And I find that I’ve had some really wonderful, really amazing teachers, and they taught me how to write spontaneously. They taught me how to write to a prompt. They taught me how to incorporate sensory detail. But nobody ever sat down and said, “This is what makes this sentence good, and that is what makes that sentence not good.”

Ronit Plank: Mmm.

Allison K. Williams: “This is what makes this story hang together, and that is what makes the story not hang together.” And so I really approach writing from a craftsman perspective. I mean, talent is great, and talent is lovely, but you know, it’s like drawing or playing the violin. We can all learn to write a book competently.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm, yeah. And it is sort of an all-encompassing view. I feel like, almost, the image I got was like you have a swivel-headed–you’re able to look really close on the very micro level, and also on the macro level. And what I wonder is, I know that you enjoyed it, and you felt like you were onto something with the editing. But I wonder when you first understood that your advice and your feedback were really helpful to people?

Allison K. Williams: So back in about 2011-2012, a former high school friend of mine started a writing contest. It was on an old-school blogging site called Live Journal. Whoop-whoop to those of you who remember Live Journal, and long may it rest in peace.

Ronit Plank: (laughs)

Allison K. Williams: But the deal was, it was called The Real Live Journal Idol, and it was structured like a reality show. And every week there was a prompt, and you had to write something that, in some way, was related to the prompt. You could write a poem; you could write a diary entry; you could write a short story–anything you wanted–but in some way, it had to address the prompt.

And every week, people voted, and then the people with the least votes “went home.” Well, I probably wouldn’t have started the contest if I realized it was going to take 10 months, but it took 10 months.

Ronit Plank: Oh…

Allison K. Williams: We started with 365 people at the beginning, and I realized I would like to win this contest. And you had to get other people to be willing to vote for you, so I resolved to raid every single person’s post every single week. And over the course of 10 months, I probably read three or 4,000 posts.

Ronit Plank: Mmm.

Allison K. Williams: And because we started with 365 people. And I quickly discovered that the stuff that got people to like me was if I gave them some genuine, honest feedback about what was really working in their piece, and a genuine, honest, helpful thought about what they could do even better. What they could improve even more as they continued working on it.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: And I started noticing, everybody has the same problems. Everybody who’s at the same stage of their writing has the same issues at the sentence level, at the story level. And people started going “Oh, yeah, you’ve got to ask Allison for advice. You’ve got to run by that Allison and see what she thinks,” and I was like “Okay, yeah, this is what I really love doing. I really like helping people make their writing better.”

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm. Are you able to enjoy books, just without putting your editor glasses on? Can you suspend that?

Allison K. Williams: I am. I am. It’s a different feeling when you’re reading a book on an e-reader or in your hand, than when you’re scrolling through a manuscript on a laptop. It feels very different. And also, I tend to read genres that I don’t edit very much. I mean I love reading historical fiction. I love reading old-fashioned mysteries, and neither one of those are things that come across my desk very often.

Ronit Plank: Okay, yeah. (laughs) I was going to hope that you can find enjoyment there and take a break from the editing. So what is it like to be an editor, as well as a writer, and how do you balance your time working on other people’s pieces, lecturing, doing these retreats, and creating your own projects that you want in the world? So, you know, the generative time for yourself, plus the brass-tacks editing that follows? Like how do you balance that?

Allison K. Williams: Oh, I’m a terrible balancer. I don’t balance it. I balance it poorly.

Ronit Plank: Mmm.

Allison K. Williams: What I end up doing is, I recognize that I am not a daily writer. A lot of people are daily writers, and I think of them as–they’re like the people who like to go to the gym. They want to show up every day. They want to a little bit. They want to build on that little bit the next day, and so on, and so on, and so on. I am a “binge worker.” And Ronit, you know this: back in the theater, you think about your idea, for like five or six months, and then you all sit in a room, and you go “Okay, this is what we’re going to do.” And then you have six weeks to finish the entire thing in front of a hard deadline. Because that audience has tickets, and they will be in those seats, whether you are done or not.

Ronit Plank: (laughs)

Allison K. Williams: And so, it took me a really long time. There were years when I was like “Oh, I must not be a real writer. Because a real writer would write every day. A real writer would want to write every day, and I don’t want to write every day.” Then I wrote Seven Drafts, and one of the things I discovered was that I did my outline, and I filled in the material that I already had from blogs, and even Facebook comments and stuff, that I knew I wanted to revise and make into part of the book, and then I checked into a hotel for six days and wrote 40,000 words.

Ronit Plank: Mmm, gosh.

Allison K. Williams: And then I came out, and took a look at what I had, and then a couple of weeks later, I checked into the hotel again, and I wrote another 40,000 words. I am a binge- writer.

Ronit Plank: You really are.

Allison K. Williams: Yeah. I want to put all my stuff in place, and then I want to write it, all at once, with my total focus on that. I turn the phone off, I turn the email off, and I don’t do any client work at all.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: I just am selfish with my time. And so, for me, finding time to write, in between editing other people’s projects, is carving out those spells where, okay, I just finished leading a retreat in Tuscany, and it was lovely to read 11 other people’s writing, and give them feedback, and help them write better. And then I disconnected everything and went to the Netherlands for three or four days. Because I love the Netherlands, but as an excitement level goes, it’s not that exciting a country.

Ronit Plank: (laughs)

Allison K. Williams: And just focused on my work for three or four days, and I carve out those little spaces that are specifically for my work.

Ronit Plank: Yeah. And I appreciate that so much. Because I know, as a younger writer, I was told, or I feel like a lot of people would say, “You have to do it. You have to wake up every morning at (blah-blah-blah) time. You have to do it, no matter what.” And I couldn’t do that, and I know a lot of writers can’t do that. Our lives are not that predictable. So-

Allison K. Williams: People have children. They have spouses.

Ronit Plank: Yes.

Allison K. Williams: They have dogs.

Ronit Plank: Yes. It doesn’t mean that you’re less serious or that you care less. It just means that you have to do it when you can do it. And while I’m not a “binge,” as in “Binge” Binge, with a capital “B,” like what you are describing, I would say that I’m a little feast or famine myself.

Allison K. Williams: Mm-hmm.

Ronit Plank: When you write, and you’re doing the idea–the ‘vomit draft,’ for example, for yourself, are you able to suspend the editor voice inside of you to just create?

Allison K. Williams: Yes and no. So, when I write, particularly when I’m writing fiction, it flows when it comes. I’ve been working on a young adult novel where I wrote the first half of it, and that was actually daily writing because I was meeting two writer buddies, at a coffee shop, like three days a week. And I would sit down, and I would write 1,000 words, and then that would feel like enough for the day. But the next day, I would revisit the 1,000 words I had done the day before, fix that, and then move forward from there. Because that process of re-reading and tweaking helped me get back into the flow of the story.

And my other great secret is to have a playlist that specifically suits the book. Like I have my “Get Up, Get Started” song at the beginning, and then songs that remind me of the theme, or the story, or the characters, and that helps me shut down that “editor brain.”

Ronit Plank: Yes, music. I haven’t written with music in some time, but it was especially helpful for me when I was doing fiction. I haven’t done it as much with memoirs, but I feel like that could also be really helpful.

And speaking of memoir, I would love to shift a little bit and concentrate now on my memoir questions, if that’s okay with you.

Allison K. Williams: Absolutely. Yeah. I just want to slide in one quick thing, which is where playlists are really helpful for memoirs is when you play the songs from the time period.

Ronit Plank: Oh, yeah. (laughs) I just was like feeling that because there really are some songs, like from the late 70s and 80s, that just really encapsulate my experience.

Allison K. Williams: Mm-hmm.

Ronit Plank: Like painfully so, and very, very nostalgically. Okay. So in your book, in one of the sections about memoir, you write the following: “Yes, the great gift of memoir is showing readers ‘You’re not the only one who felt like this, but unless you are writing national book award-level prose, our personal pain is not enough, no matter how honestly we express it.’” Okay. So this is really important, and I’m hoping you can talk about what makes memoirs compelling, beyond the recognition readers might experience, from finding themselves reflected in a memoir story.

Allison K. Williams: So I think a big thing to remember is reader takeaway. And these days, I’m much more seeing memoirs sell, and sell for fairly good deals. Not even so much because there is a specific platform, but because there is a specific cultural relevance and a specific reader takeaway.

So, for example, I worked with a wonderful writer, Karyn Fein, who is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. And when Karyn started her book, the book was, “My dog died, and I felt real bad, and I had breast cancer, and I felt real bad, and it kinda sucked.” And it wasn’t poorly written, but it was basically–it was one person’s experience. It didn’t expand outward.

And what Karyn morphed the book into was much more a sense of “What do we learn from our pets about mortality? What kind of obligation do we have to our pets about their mortality?” And many of the beta readers came away going “Oh, man. Now I feel like I have a way to think about how much care do I owe my animal, versus how much money do I have to spend on my animal’s end-of-life care?”

Ronit Plank: Mmm.

Allison K. Williams: And the book will come out from Penguin Random House next year, and now it’s called The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian’s Look at Love, Loss, Mortality, and Mindfulness.

Ronit Plank: Wow.

Allison K. Williams:  And so it still includes Karyn’s breast cancer journey. It still includes Karyn’s journey of the dog of her heart, you know, dying over a long period of time. But it’s much more oriented towards what will the reader get out of this. What will the reader take, that they can take into their own lives?

And I think this is one of the strongest reasons as well. If you’re writing a book that has a death, don’t open with the death. Because you are asking us to show up at a stranger’s funeral, and then listen to your eulogy about them before we have had any time to care about who they are, and why they matter.

And so, if you’re writing a book that involves death or serious illness, remember that it’s still got to be your story. And part of the way that you can love and honor the person that you’re writing about is by telling your own story about how to deal with that experience and letting readers experience that with you.

Ronit Plank: So, are you feeling like those are the kinds of memoirs that are actually getting deals and selling these days?

Allison K. Williams: I do think so. Tia Levings, who is a wonderful, wonderful writer, and is very active in the ex-fundamentalist community. She really found her niche, which is talking on TikTok to people escaping the abuses of Fundamental religions.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: Karyn, my veterinary friend, has no platform at all. Her only platform is “I’m a veterinarian, so I know what I’m talking about.” But there’s a strong reader takeaway in both of those books because it’s about “What can I take into my life?”

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: Michelle Bowdler wrote an incredible book called Is Rape a Crime? And so, instead of writing about “I had a sexual assault, and boy, it felt real bad,” she instead took the idea of “I had a sexual assault, and then I never heard from the police again. What happened, and who else is this happening to?” And if we have something that we say, ‘Oh, it’s a crime,’ but most of it’s not reported, and of the ones that are reported, most of them aren’t caught. And of the ones that aren’t caught, most of them aren’t prosecuted. And of the ones that are prosecuted, most of them aren’t convicted. Can we really say that our society thinks this is a crime?”

And all of a sudden, you have this horrible, but also incredible, large, cultural question of “Is something a crime if we don’t treat it like a crime? If we don’t punish it like a crime?” And it’s very personal about her journey through this experience. But it is also a book that, I think, every person will find something to identify with, and to think “Huh. This is something I had not considered from this perspective before, and it’s horribly fascinating.”

Ronit Plank: So interesting, too. Because I wonder, for example, with the veterinarian, that it sounds like the basic story was there–the loss and the experience that she had. But it sounds like, for lack of a better expression, you were like panned out, and made it a little more universal, or a little bit more relatable, beyond the individual story she was telling. But I wonder if, you know, what happens to a writer who can’t do that, or doesn’t know how to do that? Not that that means their book is not going to sell. They’ll never publish. That’s not necessarily what I’m saying.

Allison K. Williams: Mm-hmm.

Ronit Plank: But I guess it sounds like it behooves a writer of memoir to see how else their story could resonate.

Allison K. Williams: And with Karyn’s book, we broke it apart into scenes on post-it notes, stuck them on the wall, and moved them around, to see “What’s the story that we have to say?” And I think people underestimate how important the plot is in a memoir. I write in Seven Drafts, “Paying attention to your plot will help your memoir matter to the reader. Just like a novel, you must engage them in your problem in the beginning. Give them hope you’ll solve the problem, and fear that you may not.”

And what we run into with memoir is that our scenes–and they may be lovely, beautiful, little jewels of scenes. But they’re joined with “and then,” and a series of experiences is not a story. A story is joined with “but” “because” or “therefore.” So, you know “I went to the park, and then I jogged around the corner, and then I met my ex-husband, and then, and then…” It’s not a story. It’s just a series of experiences.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: But “I was feeling really sad about my life, therefore I went to the park. But because it was raining outside, I had to jog really fast to get warm. Therefore, I slammed into my ex-husband coming around the corner. But he looked at me at said, ‘Oh, my goodness. Jane, I’ve been thinking about you all day.’” And all of a sudden, we have a story, and we want to know what happens.

Ronit Plank: Yes.

Allison K. Williams: And I would say my number one tip for memoirists is really if you can sit down and write out the events in your story, and join them with “but,” “because” and then either “so” or “therefore,” each event is either an interruption, a consequence, or a motivation to do the next thing. And that’s how we can transcend from “Hey, here’s my life, and it was kind of sad,” or “It was kind of happy,” and I write reasonably well, into something that is gripping and compelling.

Ronit Plank: Mmm.

Allison K. Williams: We have this building in Dubai that’s called “The Museum of The Future.” And if you get a chance, just plug “Museum of the Future, Dubai” into a Google search, and you’ll see this building. And it is a beautiful, silver, squashed donut, covered in Arabic writing on the outside. It’s enormous. It’s gorgeous. And the thing is, the more unique the building of your memoir is going to be, the more difficult it will be to build. The more craft will be required to make it happen. But a simple building, you know, they can throw up a simple building in like a month, a month and a half. Because sticking to a plot structure, that helps you navigate through your memoir, is so much easier to make a compelling story than developing that national book award-winning prose.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: By all means, write the best you can. Get better at your writing on the sentence level. But the less plot-driven your work is, the better you have to write. The more plot-driven you work, the more compelling your story. The more you’ll get a little bit of a pass on whether or not your writing craft is award-winning.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm. Yes. I love that. I’m actually teaching something coming up, and I have a whole line about that. It’s great if you can write beautifully, but not all of us can. That’s the good news and the bad news. Because I wouldn’t say, on the sentence level, for example, I write beautifully. I don’t know that I’m ever going to be like that, right? Poetic and beautiful. But it’s the other things that I can bring to the table, hopefully.

Allison K. Williams: Exactly. And it’s just like watching a movie. There’s actors who we watch because they immerse themselves in the role, and we only see the role, you know. People like Daniel Day-Lewis. People like Val Kilmer. Then there’s actors who we watch because they’re charismatic, and they’re exciting, and we want to watch the actor in that situation–like Angelina Jolie, like Brad Pitt, like Tom Cruise. We’re not watching to see if Tom Cruise totally becomes his character.

Ronit Plank: Right.

Allison K. Williams: We’re watching because he is charismatic and charming. And the same thing happens with writing craft. Some people are going to be read because they are beautiful writers, but there’s not that many of them. That’s why we know Joan Didion by name. Lots of people are going to be read because their story is compelling. Because their plot is well-structured. Because their experiences have become interesting in being formed into a story.

Ronit Plank: Mmm. Mm-hmm. See, you just, like, come out with this stuff. I bet you say brilliant things all the time.

Allison K. Williams: (laughs)

Ronit Plank: So the number one thing–I want you to finish the sentence–I have two of these for you: “The number one thing I wish memoirists working on their manuscripts would keep in mind is-“

Allison K. Williams: You need a compelling story. And it’s worth it to spend some time building that plot framework, even if you are a pantser who writes your whole first draft without any planning at all, it is so incredibly helpful to go back and apply a traditional dramatic structure. And the places where your work doesn’t match that structure, ask yourself why. Why is it important that normally, there would be a big turning point here, and in my book, instead, the girl takes a nap in the library?

Ronit Plank: (laughs) I’d love you to finish this sentence which, I wonder if it’s going to be different: “The number one thing I wish writers–and I mean like across genres–writers would keep in mind is-“

Allison K. Williams: It will take significantly longer than you think, it will be more work than you expect, and it still won’t sell very many copies.

Ronit Plank: (laughs) I’m actually grabbing my face right now, like I’m crying. Sorry, I interrupted you. Go ahead.

Allison K. Williams: (laughs) No, not at all. So find out what matters beyond that. Beyond sales, beyond churning out a creative project, you know. What I really needed when I wrote Seven Drafts was a traditionally-published book, and the power to raise my prices, and be able to give stuff away for free. What I need with the young adult novel that I’m writing is proof to myself that I can write and finish a publishable novel. And neither of those goals depends on people buying my book. Those are things that matter to me, and I will be able to achieve those things–or fail at them–regardless of what everybody else does. Regardless of whether or not they pay money for my book.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm. So let’s talk about editing as we wind down this time together. What should writers be aware of when they hire an editor? Are there warning signs that maybe they shouldn’t put too much weight into the advice they’re getting? Is there anything you can offer listeners?

Allison K. Williams: Always get a sample edit. Some editors do sample edits for free. Some of them will charge you for the sample edit. But you are getting a sample of their work, and there will be tips in there that you can apply to your book as a whole. When you get back your sample edit, fix everything you can fix in your manuscript as a whole. So, for example, if the sample edit notices “Hey, you always confuse ‘reign’ and ‘rein,’ which is really challenging, when you’re talking about kings and horses.” You go through your whole manuscript, and you look at every single instance of ‘reign’ and ‘rein,’ and you fix them all.

And sometimes it’s a little bit more complex than that, where they say, “Oh, you can actually start the scene like a page and a half later than you have started the scene.” And you go and you look at every scene. Am I getting in too early in these scenes? Am I explaining too much at the beginning? That will make sure that when you go for a full edit, the editor is fixing stuff that you couldn’t fix yourself, and it will be a better value for money.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: The other thing I would say is, you know you’ve got the right editor when your little writer soul pops up and says, “Oh, I thought I was going to get away with that, but I kind of knew I couldn’t.” When you’ve got that “I got caught” feeling, that’s how you know, yes, this editor has helpful information to give you. This editor has useful information to give you.

Ronit Plank: Oh, I love that. I love that. I felt that, the “little writer soul,” popping up.

Allison K. Williams: Mm-hmm.

Ronit Plank: So is there anything else? Any other part of the writing life, or publishing arena, or both that you see writers often get disillusioned about?

Allison K. Williams: Well, I think people get depressed that there are so many gatekeepers involved. And often, people will pursue self-publishing because they are angry or resentful that they are not getting past gatekeepers. But very often, gatekeepers exist for a reason. There’s a reason your manuscript needs to be in the fourth, or fifth, or seventh draft. There’s a reason your work needs to be correctly spelled. There’s a reason your cover needs to be professionally designed. And that’s not to say that you cannot execute all of those things in self-publishing. There are some really fantastic self-published books out there.

But there are also people who see “Oh, well, I’m being kept out. I’m being kept out,” and that’s very often not the case. What makes your book sellable to an agent, to a publisher, is also what’s going to make it sellable when you’re selling it yourself. And so if you feel like you’re being kept behind the gate, look at what are the elements you really love about the books on the shelf you want to share, and try to bring those elements into your work. And then you can look at well, is it better to self-publish. Is it faster to self-publish? Or, now that I have brought more stuff into my book, do I want to give those gatekeepers another shot?

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm. Thank you. So, as we end, what are some of your favorite memoirs, that you go to again and again, or that have really helped you along the way?

Allison K. Williams: So I’m really digging, right now, Anna Kendrick’s Scrappy Little Nobody, which is a series of essays about her experience in Hollywood. I’m in the middle of Dinty W. Moore’s To Hell With It, which is about growing up Catholic and under the guilt of religion. And it’s funny and it’s quite short, so it’s a very fast read. I really love Jenny Lawson’s Broken in the Best Possible Way. I kind of got assigned to read it because I was her conversation partner at a literary festival last year. And it’s all about mental health and the medical system, and hilarious. And I also am really enjoying Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff, which is all about how she learned to play professional poker, but also about how she learned to make better decisions, and the things that humans do that undercut our decision-making.

But I have one little secret which is, I don’t really read very many memoirs. I don’t really like very many memoirs.

Ronit Plank: (laughs)

Allison K. Williams: And that’s why I’m good at editing it, because-

Ronit Plank: Oh, my gosh! Wait! Wait! We buried the lede. We buried the lede. Okay, go ahead. I’ve allowed an intruder into the conversation. Go ahead, tell me.

Allison K. Williams: I read memoirs because I need to for a class, or I need an example of something I’m going to teach, and that’s why I’m good at editing at it. Because I’m not going to be swept away by the beauty of the story. Gosh, I’m real sorry your whole family died in a plane crash, but this scene has no dramatic arc, so let’s fix that.

Ronit Plank: Oh my-

Allison K. Williams: I mean that’s a real story there.

Ronit Plank: Yeah.

Allison K. Williams: And the writer looked at me and said, “Oh, my God, I’m so tired of people crying in workshop, and not giving me any feedback.”

Ronit Plank: (laughs)

Allison K. Williams: And it’s the same as like–when I was in the circus, I did a lot of circus guest residencies at schools; where we would go into a school; we would work with between 50 and 100 kids, grades K-12, and at the end of two weeks, the kids put up a circus. I don’t like children. I don’t like children at all. I don’t want any. But that’s why I’m good at teaching them because I’m not focused on the charm of being a child. I’m focused on working with them as a colleague, to get that trapeze moved, that they really need to nail.

And so I think it’s actually a bit of my secret weapon, that I don’t love memoir as a genre because that lets me take that extra little step of remove and go “Okay, what’s going to make this so good, that even I’m glad I read it?”

Ronit Plank: Wow. Amazing. Okay.

Allison K. Williams:  You got the scoop. (laughter)

Ronit Plank: I want to know, real quick, do those kids love you?

Allison K. Williams: They adore me. They really do.

Ronit Plank: Right.

Allison K. Williams: And honestly, I love certain children because I love watching them achieve. I love watching them grow as performers. And I love it when the kids feel like they like me enough to play organized pranks on me. I think that’s really sweet.

Ronit Plank: Yes.

Allison K. Williams: Yeah.

Ronit Plank: Yes, that’s always a good sign.

Allison K. Williams: Children as a category, I can let ’em go.

Ronit Plank: No, I knew they would love you because you don’t care. I got it. It’s perfect.

Allison K. Williams: It’s like cats. It’s just like cats.

Ronit Plank: Yes. I was just going to say that. It’s like Cats, exactly, and definitely like teenagers. Okay. So where can people find you? How should they reach you, read you, all that stuff?

Allison K. Williams: Well, the easiest way to find all the stuff I’m doing is allisonkwilliams.com, and that has links to just about everything I do. I have some really fun and interesting classes coming up early next year. I’m doing a small group class called Project Memoir, which is going to be six weeks, eight writers putting together memoirs to a publishable stage. And I’m going to do a project novel as well because I’m really inspired by Tim Gunn.

Ronit Plank: Mm-hmm.

Allison K. Williams: And so we’re going to do stuff with specific creative projects that must be completed every week. But allisonkwilliams.com, and then I’m also on all of the socials at Gorilla Memoir, and that’s like Che Guevara, not the ape.

Ronit Plank: (laughs) Yeah. Okay. I will have those in the show notes, and I thank you so much for sharing your expertise and your experience with me. This was just wonderful.

Allison K. Williams: Thank you so much for having me. I am just so awed at what you have done, Ronit, with taking your very fascinating personal story and turning it into a compelling book.

Ronit Plank: Oh, wow. Thank you. That’s like–coming from you, man, thank you.