ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs Serial storyteller, poetry pusher, digital doodler, flâneur.

A Better Letter Manifesto v1.0

Write a better letter. Today we text and tweet and update and email and vmail and blog and vlog, but we don’t write enough letters. Or even notes. With paper and ink and stamps.

James Willis Westlake on how to write a better letter

James Willis Westlake on how to write a better letter

Digital communications are proliferating. Children can type before they can handwrite, thumb-text before they can thumb-hike. (Remember hitch hiking? It’s sort of similar to bell bottoms and vinyl albums. All three will be cool again, mark my words.)

I have a special soft spot for the lost art of letter-writing — an art robbed of romance and even basic courtesy in the age of rapid-fire, efficiency-obsessed, typed-with-one-thumb-on-a-tiny-keyboard communication. ~ Maria Popova (Brain Pickings)

How to Write Letters, by James Willis Westlake

How to Write Letters, by James
Willis Westlake (

While I’m no Luddite and I’m not proposing a ban on day-in, day-out digital communications, I am challenging you to write a better letter. A better love letter, cover letter, resignation letter, condolence letter, congratulations letter,…

I’m not talking about the glut of letter writing tips available online or even this refreshing tutorial: “to write a better letter, go fly a kite“. Sure there’s still room for James Willis Westlake’s How to Write Letters: A Manual of Correspondence, Showing the Correct Structure which I discovered via the perennially plugged-in and chronically contemplative Maria Popova’s post. (Check out her post, “How To Write Letters: A Guide to the Lost Art of Epistolary Etiquette circa 1896“.) There is still room, ample room, in fact. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about how to compose better personal, handwritten notes and letters. You dig? (That’s a bell bottom, vinyl album, hitch hiking way of asking if you understand me so far.) Here’s how to write a better letter.

Write with a Pen

Handwriting, even when it’s smudgy or loopy or crossed out or misspelled is real. And we crave real, now more than ever. Use a pen to write a better letter. It will look and feel and smell and maybe even taste like you. Well, probably it won’t taste like you, but who’s checking? Your ink-written letter will become slightly unintelligible when the recipient is so moved that s/he sheds a tear. Splash. A blurred word or two. Forever. This is good. It permits the recipient to imagine whatever words they want to imagine in your letter. This is subversive. But it is good. Very, very good!

Write with a Pencil

Scared $#!%less of the pen’s permanence. I know, it takes bravery. Or abandon. But don’t worry. You can still write a better letter even if you’re daunted by indelible pen and ink. Use a pencil to write a better letter. Yes, you can erase and rewrite and waffle, but it’s still pretty darned real. Intimate even.

Cross Out & Correct

A Better Letter?

A Better Letter?

Leave evidence that you are fallible, that you changed your mind, that your emotions and memories are forever evolving. Don’t hide your edits. Include them. They are part of the story. Part of you. Especially if they embarrass you. Digital communications are like airbrushed posters. Slightly fake. Only, its hard to be certain which part is fake and which part is real. That’s not cool. Real is cool. Marginalia is cool. Open up and share!


Don’t take yourself so seriously. Especially if it is a serious letter. Levity is the best therapy. And it’s enjoyable. Doodle even if you are totally self conscious about your artistic abilities (or lack thereof). Actually, doodle especially if you are self conscious about your artistic disabilities. It’s humble. It’s trusting. It’s generous. And it gets easier each time you try. You might even find that you are a natural doodler. I think we all are!

Write Often

Practice makes perfect. Familiar? What about this? Practice gets monotonous. We extol the virtues of practice, practice, practice, and in the process I’m afraid we sometimes stifle enthusiasm and teach risk aversion. Writing (and actually mailing) a letter is still practice. But it’s also exciting. And a wee bit risky. Did we make a mistake? Did we go too far? Did we not go far enough? And it will inspire you to fire off another letter. Write often. Practice will absolutely make you a better letter writer, but remember to send out the letters you write. Write often. Send often. Become a better letter writer!

If you’re not quite ready to practice on your near and dear (I’m thinking of the pencil letter writers) you might want to check out Mike O’Mary‘s note project which would be the perfect way to practice by sending letters to perfect strangers!

The Note Project is an ongoing campaign to make the world a million times better by inspiring people to share notes of appreciation. (The Note Project)

Go. Write. Now!

Writer’s Digest Conference 2012, Saturday

Day #2 of the Writer’s Digest Conference in the chilly, slightly snowy Big Apple… The mondo snow blizzard promised was not delivered, but you wouldn’t know one way or the other inside of this world-unto-itself hotel and conference center. What follows is a mashup, a digital scrapbook. Enjoy! Read the rest of this entry »

A Brief History of Storytelling


Mesopotamia (image by harvest breeding via Flickr)

Storytelling is often thought to have originated in Mesopotamia, where shamans would tell stories orally as a means of teaching and entertaining communities. Before we had written language, storytelling was told through a combination of drawings, which were often prompters for the storyteller to then bring the story to life through voice, dance or music. When writing was adopted in societies, various forms of media were then used to record these stories, for example etching on bark, or drawing on pottery or bones. (Simply Zesty)

A bit slapdash, perhaps, but a tidy nibble at the bigger story… Check out the post, “Social media has evolved into the art of storytelling, and we must all become masters of it.” if this nibble’s made you hungry for more. Though I should warn, the post’s thin on history and long on latter day storytelling jingoism.

5 Reasons to Write a Memoir

I’ve just read Sue William Silverman’s defence of memoir-writing, an essay full of grounded, honest advice learned in the trenches. A timely pep talk while venturing through the back alleys of my own memoir. Read the article in its entirety, but to pique your interest, here are the five reasons Silverman suggest that your life will be enhanced by discovering and telling your own memoir:

  1. Writing Memoir Helps You Overcome Fear “you’ve already lived through, survived, the actual moment… Now, tell yourself, you’re “only” writing about it, figuring out what it meant… Once the words are down on paper, you’ll feel as if a great weight, the weight of the past, has been lifted… I feel lighter, freer, as if I can truly breathe.”
  2. Memoir Helps You Understand the Past and Organize Your Life “I gain clearer insights about my past when I write it, rather than simply sitting around thinking about it in the abstract… Writing is a way to interact with—and interpret—the past. It helps us make sense of events whether they are traumatic, joyful, or just confusing… Memoir writing… helps us shape our lives… we give our lives an organization, a frame, which they would not otherwise have. Memoir creates a narrative, a cohesive life story. It gives your life a previously undiscovered structure and theme.”
  3. Memoir Helps You Discover Your Life Force “To write is to give birth to a more complete self… There is only one of you. Your voice is unique. If you don’t express yourself, if you don’t fully explore who you are, that essence of you will be lost forever… The act of writing is where the spirituality of artistic endeavor resides.”
  4. Memoir Helps You as well as Others to Heal Giving a voice to your past is empowering to you and your audience.
  5. Confessing through Memoir is Good for the Soul “As you challenge yourself, you’ll feel more courageous every day. Writing memoir energizes your psyche, nourishes your soul… To do so is to feel your horizons expand… Writing is a way to take possession of—to fully own—our lives. Only you own your memories.(Numéro Cinq)

Sue William Silverman’s most recent book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir is available at in paperback and Kindle editions.

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A Lot of Life

Karl Sprague (@karlsprague) just made my day! I met Karl at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City last month, and his sunny, upbeat personality made him irresistible from our first handshake. He’s the quintessential poster boy for the Sunshine State. Here’s what he tweeted me this morning:

You pack a lot of life into a 24 hour period, don’t you? U keep us mentally sedentary folks updated on writing / travel / life

Karl Sprague

Wow. I think I’ll print and frame that when I get home from Costa Rica. Bold font. Hung front and center over my desk. Or my kitchen range. No, maybe nailed to a post by my garden. Hmmm. Duct taped to the wishbone of my windsurfer? Or the handlebars of my bike? Maybe I’ll just memorize it, repeat it like a mantra each morning. Or any time my enthusiasm sags…

I’m serious. What a gift! What validation. What encouragement. I wonder if Karl had any notion at all how his quick message would impact me. I’d like to think he did. He’s magnanimous, wouldn’t miss an opportunity to give, encourage, thank. And yet, I’m guessing he didn’t. I’m guessing he typed and sent that tiny little tweet out into the ether without thinking too much about it. That’s also the kind of fellow he is, generous with complements but totally unselfconscious about his generosity. Second nature. The kind of guy who smiles by default, laughs to relax, encourages because it’s his instinct.

Thank you, Karl. I’m not sure I could summarize my life’s ambitions better!

Memoir Darts and Regurgitation

Like many writers and readers I’ve been chewing on Neil Genzlinger’s “Problem With Memoirs” and swinging back and forth between reproach and praise. It’s a provocative piece that continues to provoke dramatic responses.

There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. (

My reactions are complicated by the fact that Rosslyn Redux, my current work-in-progress, is a memoir. Besides, I agree with Genzlinger that an awful lot the whiny, angry drivel masquerading as memoir should still be standing vertical in forests.

Over the last few months that I’ve been chasing publishing answers and advice I’ve often heard that the best selling memoirs are born of strong platforms, not strong writing or stories. Celebrity memoirs are the obvious example. Publishers apparently love them because they sell, sell, sell. Makes sense. But doesn’t exactly fuel the sort of mighty memoir creation that Genzlinger craves. He acknowledges that there’s plenty of quality memoir being produced, but it’s swamped by forgettable, regrettable spamoir!

Sure, the resulting list has authors who would be memoir-eligible under the old rules. But they are lost in a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it. (

That he lumps unheard-of memoirists with porridge producers continues to bug me. He seems to suggest, albeit obliquely, that memoir writing should be limited to writer’s sitting atop successful publishing careers. Or celebrities? Maybe this is like the agents and publishers and editors drumming the “Platform, Platform, Platform” chant. Or maybe he genuinely believes that  memoirs will be better if written by widely known/read authors. In any case, I don’t understand. And — as a newbie — I’m annoyed to be categorically dismissed. Porridge producers, be damned. But I’m confident that newbies can dish up delicacies too.

Am I being thin skinned? Sure. And this is the complexity of Genzlinger’s piece. I credit that he’s intentionally pushing buttons, intentionally chastising and provocative. And the brunt of his thinking is spot on. He closes with advice:

If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key… (

Sure, he’s posturing and fanning the flames, but he’s right. But who decides? Writing and storytelling and memoir are subjective. And the marketplace often veers wildly from the literary merits of work published. Obviously the authors have a tough time typing “The End” and then condemning the preceding 180k words to the dustbin. And publishers are altogether too happy to pass the porridge along to starving readers with deep pockets. So who decides? Perhaps his point lies elsewhere; perhaps he’s simply trying to redefine what makes a good memoir.

That’s what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.(

This sings, soars, then arcs toward the target. Bulls eye! Bravo, Gun-slinger. This is what he’s after, the recipe for a meaningful memoir. And I want to stand and pump my fists in the air as I cheer and bellow, “Hurrah!”Memoir is discovery.

I differ with Penny Jar who’s response to “the great wack-a-doo in the memoir world” unleashed by Genzlinger’s piece concludes that a manifesto to brilliance is at work.

I don’t see the article as being the snobby, dodgy, shut-your-pie-hole critique it may have been served up as. I think it’s a call to brilliance. (Penny Jar)

Brilliance and excellence, yes, but this is always the case in great writing. What sets memoir apart? Discovery. I’m reading Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Storywhich breaks down this discovery even further into the narrator’s discovery of self through a larger, more plot-driven discovery. (I’ll tackle this idea again soon in another post.)

Absent the discovery, memoir is a pointless chronicle, a panful traipse through the wasteland of experience. So what? Who cares? If the reader is to become invested in the story, the author must share their discovery openly, honestly, artistically.

In “Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional” Susan Cushman develops this last idea further by referencing a comment made by Scott Morris (Waiting for April and The Total View of Taftly) a couple of years ago during a manuscript critique workshop she attended in Oxford, Mississippi:

A memoir must be artful and not just real. Yes, you’ve lived it—the abuse, the loss, the suffering—now you have to get up and above it, distance yourself, and spin a good yarn. You’ve got to create art from what you lived. (There Are No Rules)

So, where does this leave us? I’m still swimming upstream, trying to distill 400k of regurgitation into a tidy story. I’m enjoying the journey, but the discovery is still unraveling. As for art, though I’m courting her night and day, she’s an elusive soul. Not giving up yet…

Are some memoirs better as fiction?

Mentors & Mavericks: Writer’s Digest Conference 2011

On January 21-23 I attended the 2011 Writer’s Digest Conference. I arrived focused on my book, my book pitch and my publishing goals. I left focused on new friends and acquaintances, a community of writers and publishing industry professionals who shared their visions, ambitions, guidance and encouragement. Listen to my wide wandering reflection on this transformation or read audio transcription.

I’ve collected the social media artifacts from those three days into an illuminating if cumbersome archive of the event:

I’ll continue to curate and weave my commentary into this collaborative coverage in the days ahead. Please contact me (@virtualDavis) to recommend blog posts, etc. that I’ve overlooked. Thanks!

The highlight of the Writer’s Digest Conference was the people. I’m referring to both the  presenters and the other attendees. As a writer, I find that it’s all too easy to disconnect — to become isolated — not socially but professionally. And yet, I love to connect and interact. I yearn for feedback and criticism and guidance and encouragement. This is a big reason why I teach, act, blog, flinflan, tweet and tell stories. Writing demands connecting and community. Last weekend’s conference delivered both, engaging me directly with writers, readers, publishing veterans and innovators.

In addition to the curated archives above, I’ll blog on several of the most memorable presentations over the next week or two. I’d like to start today by acknowledging one presenter who profoundly impacted me, Jane Friedman (@janefriedmanThis woman’s a dynamo! Behind those coquettish ringlets and a smile that feels like a bear hug from an old friend, Jane Friedman is all genius. No joke. And not only publishing-smart, but savvy-smart. And generous-smart.

You see, I was Friedman’s student even before attending her “Your Publishing Options” session on Saturday morning. She didn’t know it; she didn’t even know me. But her No Rules blog has been a critical component of my crowdsourced MFA in recent months. Then, a little over a week ago, I attended her “3 Secrets for Selling Your Nonfiction Book Live Webinar“. Ninety minutes of real-time Friedman instructing me how to compose an effective book query. Great class!

She answered questions and disected queries submitted by participants in the webinar. My learning curve went vertical. But the most helpful was yet to come. I’d mentioned to Friedman that I’d be pitching my book at #wdc11, so she revised my bloated book overview into an amuse-bouche to tempt literary agents during the Pitch Slam. And she did so almost immediately despite the fact that she was preparing for her battery of presentations and traveling halfway across the country. She communicated and encouraged me via three separate social media channels. All, without having ever met me!

In short, Friedman had won my gratitude and admiration even before her Saturday morning presentation on traditional publishing, niche presses and self-publishing. Then she proceeded to deliver what was easily the most organized, efficiently delivered and content-rich presentation that I attended all weekend. She observed that all three publishing options are relevant today (“they’re almost all on equal footings now”) and mapped out the pros and cons for each. She instructed us to evaluate how we connect with readers in order to select the publishing channel most compatible with our own strengths. Although the self-publishing route demands the greatest entrepreneurial spirit, Friedman emphasized that all three require writers to actively market and promote their work. Nobody is exempt.

Friedman illuminated the dark nooks and crannies of today’s publishing world while empowering a capacity audience of aspiring writers to chart their own course. She acknowledged that it helps to have a “partner” or mentor in the publishing community, and I realized why she’d already had such a profound impact on me. Her blog and webinar are the closest I’ve come to having a writing mentor since college, half a lifetime ago!

I’ve written since high school; I’ve taught writing; I’ve edited and published online and offline journals; and I’ve even mentored others. But I’ve never sought out an experienced, confident coach to help me become a published author. Why not?

I suppose, like many writers, I’ve identified the writing practice with solitude, with head down focus and perseverance, with forging my own course. I suppose, like many writers, I’ve been stubborn and overconfident that I can (must?) navigate this adventure independently.

But Jane Friedman and Dan Blank and Richard Nash and Patricia V. Davisand Al Katkowsky and a half dozen literary agents and several dozen writers grabbed me, jerked my blinders off and showed me that I’m not alone on this journey. We’re a community full of wise mentors and inspiring mavericks. Writers who opt out of this community are sacrificing the very guides, resources, and opportunities which can accelerate their progress as writers. And they are overlooking the friendship and encouragement of the most compatible colleagues out there!

And so, I return to the Adirondacks, to my desk, to my manuscript. But unlike my writing practice before the Writer’s Digest Conference, I have discovered a new passion, focus, strategy and community. I am now ready to seek out the mentors and mavericks who will shape my adventure. I’m ready to embrace my fellow adventurers, starting with a warm “Thank you!” to everyone I met at the Writer’s Digest Conference and to those of you who followed along via #wdc11. And I am ready and eager to bear hug all of you who follow, support, critique, encourage and teach me via TwitterFacebook, the virtualDavis blog and my Flinflanerie newsletter. Thank you!

Query. Wait. Fail.

“Queries received in 2010: around 10,000. New clients taken on from query (no referral): 0.” […] Those 10,000 queries represent approximately 10,000 writers who have dreams of seeing their book in print, who’ve likely spent months on a manuscript, who are desperately seeking a chance at traditional publication… So what does that say about the query system? Does it really work anymore? Is the system slowly dying?

Of course the system isn’t dead yet. From time to time, I still hear reports of writers landing agents through cold-querying. But if the statistics of gaining an agent through querying are slim and growing narrower, what can writers do to increase their chances of getting an agent? (Is the Query System Dying?)

This sobering post from Jody Hedlund (author of The Preacher’s Bride) echoes an increasingly familiar publishing mantra, “Adjust, adjust, adjust. Connect, connect, connect.” It’s yet another reminder that the days of the solitary author penning in a garret are numbered. Correction. They may be numbered if s/he wants to secure a publishing contract, build an audience and possibly become a professional writer.

I’m not horrified to read Hedlund’s post or Rachel Gardner’s post that prompted this reflection on the demise of the conventional query system. As a newbie unaccustomed to the “old way” of querying and well accustomed to merits of the social web, I actually see this transition as a potential improvement. Or at least an improvement for me and writers like me. And I think that Hedlund’s advice makes sense:

  • Seek out new agents through reputable literary agencies.
  • Realize the query system may not be enough.
  • Shift to a new way of relating to agents.

So where does that leave me on the week of my first foray into agent pitching? I’m optimistic. The query system hasn’t failed me, and I’m confident that I’ll find the perfect agent. Perhaps not this week, or even in the next few months, but I’m learning more every day about which agents are embracing the publishing industry transition rather than lamenting the change and clinging to the old. I am learning what sort of agent relationship is best suited to my strengths and ambitions. And I am learning how important the right match will be in the years to come. Tomorrow’s query system sounds just great!

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Seduce the Agent

At the end of July Jane Friedman (@janefriedman), posting from the Midwest Writers Workshop said, “Probably the stand-out advice of the morning was from Marcus Sakey, who talked at length on query letters.” Buried in good-if-not-so-memorable advice was a bomb that set the Twittersphere afire: Sakey (@MarcusSakey) “advised that query letters, if any good, would result in a 75% “send me something response.

Manna from heaven! Just the pearls of wisdom that aspiring authors covet. Except when it contradicts their own experience. In fact, so much hullabuloo emanated from this claim that Friedman asked him to elaborate in a guest pos on her There Are No Rules blog. Sakey was quick to limit his assertion to fiction, “nonfiction is different, and I don’t know beans about it“, but I’m nevertheless drawn to his assertion that a query letter should not try to sell the book.

You are not selling the book… All you’re doing is seducing the agent. You want to get them interested enough that they ask to see your manuscript. That’s it. It’s like online dating. If you can write a charming e-mail, you might get a date; if you get a date, who knows where it could lead. But try to put all your history and baggage in that first message and you won’t get any play. Instead, demonstrate that you’re worth someone’s time. That you are interesting, sincere, and respectful. (How to Ensure 75% of Agents Will Request Your Material)

Makes sense to me! Of course, online dating still requires that you deliver the goods when you meet in person, or else Mr. Lonely will spend the rest of his days practicing his fly tieing and perfecting his hook while the fish get away again and again. Sounds obvious enough, but how do you interest the right agent? How do you demonstrate that you are worth their time?

Well, for one, you’re polished. Your language is compelling… your presentation is perfect… you’re brief. Agents are busy. There are hundreds of other queries to read. Finally, you are a storyteller. You know how to tease, how to intrigue, and you’re not afraid to put those wiles to work. (How to Ensure 75% of Agents Will Request Your Material)

The proof is in the pudding. Show; don’t tell. Am I missing a savory cliche? Perhaps, but the point’s clear and compelling: perfect hook + polished presentation + brevity = perfect pitch. But is it correct?


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eBook Summit 2010

What does tomorrow’s publishing world look like? MediaBistro’s eBook Summit dove into the “New Era of Publishing” on December 15, 2010 at The New Yorker Hotel to explore “some of the most pressing industry issues” and to assist writers, editors, publishers and agent in navigating “the changing industry ecosystem.”

In January I start pitching Rosslyn Redux to a publishing industry that is not only new to me but new to itself. I figured this conference would serve as an informative industry barometer for me and an up-close-and-personal glimpse at how traditional publishers and agents are adapting to the Post-Gutenberg Paradigm. The day was an eye opener. Below I’ve overviewed the highlights.

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