From St. Petersburg and Kalamazoo to Dubai, from professional acrobat and aerialist to editor - meet expat woman Allison K. Williams
9 February 2021| Last updated on 14 February 2021
After 20 years touring the world as a professional circus acrobat and aerialist, Allison K. Williams, expat, writer, editor and speaker coach, settled in Dubai with her husband. We had the chance to get to know Allison, who participated at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature this year as a guest speaker.
"I’ve always been a writer, and, and pursuing writing full time was the next step. I’ve always been a writer, and, and pursuing writing full time was the next step."
Q. When did you first realise you wanted to be an editor?
"I started in theatre, and my MFA is in playwriting, so I was already strong in dramatic structure and dialogue, and understood what stories capture an audience’s imagination.
I’d always helped friends with their writing, and in 2011 I took part in an online contest on an old blogging platform, Livejournal. Every week, all the participating writers were giving a prompt, and we could respond to that topic in any way we liked: essays, short stories, poems, etc. Each week had voting on the submitted work, and the low-vote-getters left the contest. I wanted to win the contest (and eventually did), and realized I needed to give a genuinely helpful comment on each writer’s work each week so they would think kindly of me and vote for me as they left the contest!
We started with 368 contestants, and the contest lasted 10 months. Reading and commenting on over seven thousand short pieces made me very, very good at spotting problems and sharing them with the writer in a direct but encouraging way. "
Q. As an editor, what do you find surprises prospective authors the most about the editing and publishing process?
"It TAKES. SO. LONG. Brand-new authors are often surprised that after their considerable work on the first draft, it takes at least that much more time writing subsequent drafts to clarify the story, round out the characters, clean up the dialogue, and then examine and refine every sentence to say exactly what they mean, in the best words they’re capable of.
That’s where we find out who wants to “have written a book” and who wants to “be a writer.” They’re both valid goals! It’s possible to churn out “good enough,” especially if you’re writing business or self-help, or planning to self-publish, and hope you’ll get better with book two, or pay an editor a lot of money rather than learn to write better. But if someone really wants a writing career, they’ll need to learn the craft, and that takes time.
My favorite clients are the ones who genuinely want to write better, and the time we spend improving their skills means their next book will be much easier to write."
Q. What do you look for when you get your hands on a writer’s work?
"Are they telling a clear and cohesive story? Are scenes shown on the page, rather than summarized by the narrator? Does the reader get to see the characters’ actions and judge for themselves, rather than being told who’s a “good guy” or “bad guy”? Does dialogue sound like individuals? Are sentences clear and clean, and are variations from standard grammar serving the story as part of the author’s voice? And most of all, is it interesting to read—will readers walk away entertained, enlightened, or moved?"
Q. How much has your editing process changed since the days of Get Published in Literary Magazines?
"I’ve gotten better at telling authors less! Originally, I commented on every single thing I saw, which I know now was overwhelming and even discouraging. Now I work with authors in multiple rounds, going from big picture issues like the storyline to smaller issues like punctuation, focusing on fewer things but more in-depth.
I’ve changed my business model to include more coaching, working chapter-by-chapter to help writers finish their book. When travel is possible, I work with authors on their entire manuscripts at 'Rebirth Your Book' retreats in Italy and Costa Rica; currently, I co-host virtual intensives—five-day workshops focusing on craft and publishing. My next intensive will be in May."
Q. As the “Unkind Editor”, what do you tell clients when they receive their 5th or so rejection?
"First, rejection is proof you’re doing the work to get published. As a circus performer, training in the gym, no-one gets a new skill without a lot of crashing face-first into the mat. There are no flips without falling, and there is no publishing without rejection.
Second, 5 is a ridiculously small number of rejections. That’s a solid afternoon! My first book was rejected by 54 agents before I was signed; then shopped to 25 publishers and didn’t sell, and the agent and I parted ways. My second book was rejected by 35 agents, rewritten, rejected by 35 more agents, rewritten, and rejected by 25 more agents. I’m rewriting it again!
My third book agented right away—with an agent who rejected my previous two!—and sold right away. The whole process took about two weeks. So after 10 years and 150+ rejections, I’m an overnight success."
Q. If you had to warn an aspiring writer against a cardinal sin in the process of writing and publishing a book, what would it be?
"Arrogance. Sometimes writers clap back at rejections on social media, which is a mistake—you might want to work with that agent down the road! Or worse, they believe their work is wonderful and needs no improvement, it’s just that everyone else “doesn’t get it.”
On the flip side, too much humility can be an obstacle, too. At some point, you have to feel confident in your own work, ready to share it and ready to accept thoughtful criticism as a gesture of respect. Someone who takes the time to give serious critique believes in your work—they want you to get better, and they think you can!
I always remember that in circus (as in ballet, gymnastics, and other elite sports), the student getting the most criticism is the best student in the room. The teacher doesn’t waste their time on people they think are already doing the best they’re capable of. Instead, they push hard on the potential for greatness."
Q. In addition to ‘The Path to Publication’, you had your panel at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature this year. How much of the workshop applies to your latest book?
"All of it! The workshop is basically an overview of the Seven Drafts how the author should edit their work and in what order. The book of course goes more in-depth, with exercises for each draft, craft lessons, and much more nuance than I can express in a 2-hour workshop.
My book, Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, is an author’s companion throughout the entire process of writing their novel or memoir.
I am so pleased to live in a place where culture of all kinds is seen as necessary to the soul of the nation. Where the visual, performing and literary arts are something that major government officials sponsor and attend, and where we writers and readers have a world-class venue to share our work and see what’s new and exciting in publishing.
The Emirates Literature Foundation has done a fantastic job making the event as safe and accessible as possible this year."
Q. Do you have any special rituals when you guest at a panel/hold a public speaking position like this?
"I teach standing up and I move around a lot, so I do a full theatrical physical and vocal warm-up—I always confuse the event staff when I’m hiding in a service corridor making “oooo-eeee-aaaa” noises! And I need at least one bottle of water per hour of teaching."
Q. You live in Dubai - Do you feel aspiring writers are given enough support in the UAE? And if not, how could the country improve?
"Dubai is a great place to be a writer. We have local groups like the Dubai Literary Salon, which I host, and the Dubai Writers Group, as well as the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and other events.
The library system provides free workspace and sometimes workshops. Coffee shops and cafes don’t mind if we sit for hours, typing away. Our adult expat and Emirati population is privileged with free time and safe surroundings, which helps us have the physical and emotional resources to pursue our creative work."
I’d love to see a Creative Writing Certificate Program for adults who want to dedicate time to improving their work in a structured, focused way, but don’t want or need to return to university. Or perhaps a Book Incubator program, designed to usher authors from their ideas to publication over the course of a year or two. Programs like that would need institutional or government support, and maybe I should find out if Dubai Culture is interested!"
Q. If you could let people know anything else about you, what would it be?
"I may look like I have it all together, but I’m honestly a socially awkward dork! My favorite social activity is meeting a writing buddy at a café, then sitting opposite each other without speaking for five hours while we write. That’s heaven."
Follow Allison at @guerillamemoir on Instagram and Twitter!