Sunday 4 October 2015

Some thoughts on new writers and publishing

As a tutor one of the most common mistakes I see in new writers is their acting to soon on that urge to get their work out there. I think most writers have it - I definitely did - when you really find the thing you feel is your calling it is very exciting and every new poem or short story you write is the best thing you have ever written and of course you can't wait to share it with the rest of the world. And maybe it IS the best thing YOU have ever written, and maybe your friends and family and even tutors have praised it, but that doesn't mean that it will necessarily cut it in the competitive publishing world.

I am not saying this to be mean or judgemental - I sent out some howlers before I knew better. For years I wrote poetry without really working on (or knowing how to work on) my craft and I would send the best (in my eyes) of those poems to the occasional competition convinced it might stand a chance - I look back on those with horror now. And then when I started writing seriously and my work started improving and evolving and I was dipping my toe into the writing world, again I was keen to start getting it out there. I remember a particularly painful rejection that came from a guest editor of Magma suggesting I might want to do a creative writing course - I was apoplectic at the time - I was in the last year of a creative writing degree of course I was a serious writer - but looking back he was right. My writing was showing signs of something promising but I was still making beginner's mistakes and I was nowhere near there yet (not that I am now either - but I am a bit further along the path).

A wise tutor (and respected poet) once told me that it takes six years hard work to become a mediocre poet. At the time I thought that was a little harsh but now I realise that he was right. I have worked on my craft seriously for six years now (I don't count the time on my Creative Writing BA in that - if I count that too it's nine years) and I only now feel that I am really beginning to find my feet with my writing. I started sending work out sporadically to journals towards the end of my MA year and didn't start thinking about pulling poems into a pamphlet or collection until a couple of years after that. And all the while I was writing a lot as well as reading lots of journals, poetry collections, poetry websites, essays and books on writing.

Social media has been a great thing for writers. I am involved with several Facebook workshopping groups and was part of Jo Bell's 52 project last year. Social media has enabled writers to feel less isolated, to make connections, to get invaluable feedback on their work, and to make lasting friendships. But the down side of this web community is that it can make people competitive and over eager to be published. Consequently there has been a small rash of web zines and journals springing up that are not overly discerning about what they publish and don't reject much (if any work). On the one hand a little healthy competition can be good and more poetry publishing opportunities must surely be a good thing, but the down side of this is that it is easier than ever to get into print but that the quality of the work being published is not always so good. I know from my own experience that as you improve as a writer that you are sometimes embarrassed by your earlier efforts - which is OK if it is just the odd poem in a back issue of a journal that no one will ever see - but less good if it is emblazoned across the internet and the first thing that comes up if an editor googles your name. Luckily for me the internet poetry world was not so big when I started out and I have managed to locate and delete the awful poetry blog I started years ago.

So what's my point? I am not saying that new writers should never send work out or think about what might happen further down the line if they keep writing. I am just saying be cautious. Sit on your work for a while first, edit re-edit, put it away for a while and then edit some more. Be aware that not everything you write will be good enough to publish - I probably write 10-15 poems to get one or two that are OK. Keep reading and writing and reading. Read widely. Read journals to see what's out there and get an idea of where your work might eventually sit. Read collections to learn and be inspired and to get an idea of how collections work. If you are a relatively new writer put publishing on the back burner for a bit - it's better to enter in a blaze of glory than with something mediocre, and if getting published is your only reason for writing perhaps consider another career.

Monday 7 September 2015

Getting it out there revisited

Reading back over my blog posts I came across one I had written in February called Getting it Out There. In the post I bemoan the fact that I had very little (almost nothing actually) published last year. The upshot was that with the encouragement of Heidi Williamson my writing coach, and after reading Jo Bell's blog post about poetry submissions, I decided to shake up my approach to submissions.

When I say shake it up what I actually mean is put a rocket under it and light the touch paper. I resolved that I would send out at least one submission per week. What I found when I first started doing this was that some weeks I would send more than one lot of poems off - it's the getting started that's the hard bit, but once I have I sometimes find that I get on a roll and then it's easy to send more. My new spreadsheets (submission spreadsheet and poem destinations) make it much easier to track where I am sending stuff - and more importantly where I have sent things before - crucial if you don't want to submit the same poem to a journal twice (I have done this and it's very embarrassing!). The poem destinations spreadsheet lists all my poems that I think are submittable (probably a tenth or less of what I have written) and next to each poem all the journals each poem has been sent to. I highlight a journal in yellow if it accepts the poem so that I know not to send out the poem again.  Of course spreadsheets are only as good as the person filling them in/reading them so mistakes and multiple submissions can and do still occur - but hopefully much less often.

I send to both print and online journals - always making sure that I have read the journal first and that I send something that I think will fit either the journal's style or the theme. I have kept up this submitting schedule for several months (I have slowed down a bit now) and I have been astonished by the results. Firstly I discovered that the more rejections I receive the less bothered am. When I was sending one submission every few months I would get very attached to the outcome and feel slightly depressed when the rejection arrived. Sending more work out inevitably means a lot more rejections but when I have several submissions out there I am less attached to each one. Secondly I have had almost thirty poems published already this year, with several more pending publication. All those years I had been brooding over occasional rejections and not sending out my work because I didn't think it was good enough - something that this months Mslexia cites as a common response amongst women - all I actually needed to do was send out more work.

Of course rejection still hurts, and if I have a few nos in a row it can still make me feel despondent, but now when I feel the despondency creeping up I remind myself to look at my Publishing History and I feel a lot better about the whole thing. 

Some tips for submitting:

1) Read the journal.
2) Read the submission guidelines - they vary from journal to journal.
3) Send a polite cover letter/email including a brief and relevant bio (unless the guidelines ask you not to) listing the names of the poems and thanking the editors for taking the time to read your work.
4) Send several poems so the editor gets a feel for your work.
5) Don't expect a receipt or acknowledgement that they have received it - and please don't email asking for one.
6) Don't resubmit immediately as soon as you get a rejection. Leave at least a month or so in between. Magma is the exception to this as they have a different editor for each issue. 
7) If you are submitting the same poem to several places email the other places immediately if a poem is accepted elsewhere.
8) If you have a poem accepted by a journal wait to submit more work (unless they ask you for some). Journals often like to wait at least an issue before they publish a poet again - Nutshells and Nuggets asks successful submitters to wait six months before re-submitting.
9) Don't use fancy fonts. 
10) include you name and contact details in the header or footer of each page (unless the journal asks you not to - some journals read anonymously - check the guidelines).
11) Don't automatically assume a poem is bad because it gets rejected - I have had poems published after being rejected by five other places, and some that are strong that haven't found a home because they don't quite fit anywhere.
12) Don't send a poem out too soon after writing. Leave it a bit and edit it again. If you can take it to a workshopping group. If you write a poem you feel will be good there is always that excitement that makes you want to send it out into the world too soon - and if you do this the likelihood is it will be rejected. You will look at it later and feel embarrassed because it needs editing - but then, of course, you can't submit it to that journal as they have already rejected it. I speak from bitter experience! 

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Photo Project Revisited

Back in February I posted about a new sequence of poems I was writing that concerned photographs from my childhood, both real and imagined. I had a flurry of writing these poems and then, as often happens, I got distracted by other topics and stopped writing them for a few months. While I was having an editing session a few weeks ago I revisited some of them and this led to me being inspired to write a few more.

I often seem to work like this. Occasionally I will write a sequence pretty much all in one go over a few days or weeks, but other times I will find I write a sequence that I leave alone for a while but keep coming back to. My prose poem sequence about the religious family was written like this - I have written quite a few poems in the same voice (that of a youngish girl) over the space of several years. Sometimes I think I am finished with it and a few weeks later will find another poem in her voice clamouring to get out.

My photographic series seems to be working in much the same way. I become bored with it or lose momentum and leave it for a while, and suddenly weeks later something will spark a memory that leads to another poem.

This is the latest one in the sequence - this is an imagined photo of a real incident.


This is the estranged aunt
who arrives out of the blue
with Easter eggs in a fancy vase
and a cuddly rabbit,
this is her at the kitchen table
in her fur coat drinking tea,
this is how you loved the rabbit
by pulling out his whiskers,
this is the aunt leaving in a taxi
before your dad gets home.

Sunday 5 July 2015

Language and the weight of knowledge

Yesterday I found myself thinking about weight; the weight of what we specifically bring (and cannot help but bring) to our reading of texts. Our heads are full of language, and what we know and understand that language to mean, all the associations that we have built up over the years pertaining to specific words and phrases. Say the word house for example and you will be able to conjure up an image of a house – but that image will be different for everyone. It may be an icon or a childish rendition of a house, or it may be a specific house – the house you live in, your childhood home, the house of a friend or lover, or a house that you admire. For me it is the house across the street from mine – an image I see everyday from my living room window, so it is firmly etched on my mind, but I live on a terraced street in a city, so that house comes attached to another house - it is hard to think of one without seeing the other. We each bring our own memories and associations (our own baggage) to that one simple word – house.
I found myself wondering what would it be like to not bring this burden (if it is a burden) of knowledge to the reading of a poem or text? Would it make the words seem fresher, newer? Would we glean a deeper or greater meaning from the text? Does our store of language, meaning, images and understanding weigh the writing down and skew the intended meaning? Or does what we bring to the table add something positive to the writing, taking the meaning beyond the page?

Yesterday morning I was reading a poem by Rosemarie Waldrop. The second line of the poem contained the phrase “with pieces of torn underwear.” Even though the full line was “A clothesline with pieces of torn underwear, reflected in a puddle.” My mind zoomed in on the phrase “pieces of torn underwear” and I proceeded to apply to it all the connotations I have built up around such an image: crime novels I have read, TV series and films I have watched and news stories that I have heard over the years. My mind immediately began wondering (picturing even) how the underwear might have been torn and it concluded it could have been rape and possibly also murder. Of course there could be a hundred other reasons for torn underwear. And you might also wonder why I wasn’t also wondering why they were pegged onto the line and not on the floor or in the bin – in fact I did pay attention to this, but not before my mind had done the whole torn underwear dance I just described. So you see I brought the weight of all the things I have heard, read, seen and understood to this one simple (if loaded) phrase. My mind would not allow me to simply read it for what it was – pieces of torn underwear on a line, reflected in a puddle. Is this meandering of the mind a burden or a blessing? I couldn’t quite decide. But as my artist friend pointed out, it is knowledge and experience that enables us to understand written language (or language at all) in the first place – and without it the text would be meaningless to us.  So maybe it is a blessing after all – and this post is meaningless…

Tuesday 5 May 2015

NaPoWriMo - sticking it out

I am pleased to say that I stuck out the whole month of NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month). I was worried that I would lose interest after the first week or so - especially as I didn't make it through the whole of novel writing month last year. However writing poetry is a little different to writing a novel, for a start you can write lots of poems on different themes so you don't need to worry about getting stuck with your plot. A poem is generally much shorter as well, so you don't have to write thousands of words a day. Thirdly the NaPoWriMo website had a writing prompt every day, and although they were nowhere near as good as Jo Bell's 52 prompts, it did give me a kick starter if I needed it. I not only managed a poem a day, but somedays I wrote several. Only time will tell, of course, whether any of them are any good, but I suspect there may be two or three worth keeping.

Thursday 23 April 2015

Some Brilliant News

So those of you who have read my posts on putting together a collection and sending out work might be pleased to know that all the hard work has finally paid off. My collection Bird Sisters will be published by Nine Arches Press in Spring 2016. To say I am pleased would be the understatement of the year. I am absolutely delighted. Jane Commane is my editor (yes I have an editor) and I am very much looking forward to working with her. Nine Arches won the Saboteur Award for most innovative publisher last year. They publish some really interesting poetry and prose and I love their journal Under the Radar so I am very pleased that they have decided to publish me.

If you happen to be at Wenlock Poetry Festival this weekend Nine Arches are the publisher in residence.

Saturday 14 March 2015

Some thoughts on Re-reading Books

'When I re-read The Rainbow I had thought I might discover, like a flower pressed between the pages, the dried remains of my younger self preserved within it.' (Geoff Dyer - Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H. Lawrence) 

This quote encapsulates for me why sometimes re-reading an old favourite can sometimes be a little disappointing. Haven't we all had that experience of going back to book or film that we loved when we were younger or that really resonated with us, only to discover that it just isn't as good as we remember or worse still that it leaves us cold? How much we enjoy a book isn't just about the quality of writing, or the way the story engages us (the readers) - it is about the experiences that we as readers bring to the reading of each particular story - our state of mind, our life circumstances, our past experiences etc. 

It makes sense that we respond to texts differently at different points in our lives - after all our life experience at sixteen-years-old is going to be vastly different to our life experience in our forties - and what seemed new and exciting to us as teenagers may seem like stale and hackneyed ideas to us as adults, or things that seemed plausible may seem less so. But I think also that Dyer has nit the nail on the head - when I re-read a book there is almost certainly an element of wanting to re-capture the original feelings it engendered in me - whether these are recognition, fear, excitement or whatever, and part of that desire might also be yearning to re-experience what it is like to be a younger version of myself. Of course this is next to impossible - unless you have amnesia you can't read a book you have already read and expect to have the same reactions to it as the first time you read it. We can only really experience something for the first time once, so on subsequent readings we will not only be bringing the life experiences that we have accumulated since the reading, but also our memories and thoughts (both conscious and subconscious) of the book to the reading experience. 

Of course that doesn't mean that we shouldn't re-read books or that we won't enjoy re-visiting novels that we have already read. Often a re-reading of a book can be enjoyable in a different way to the first reading, it can remind us how we felt when we first read it, and, perhaps more importantly, it can lead us to a deeper understanding of the text.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Getting it Out There

I was updating my personal bibliography a couple of months ago and was shocked to discover that I had only had one poem published in 2014. I had had work accepted that will come out this year, I had been shortlisted in a pamphlet competition and I had written a couple of reviews - but still only one poem. I was shocked. Part of my problem is that I have never been pro-active enough about sending out my work. I had a beginner's flurry - where you send out lots of work that isn't good enough because you are so excited about this amazing writing thing. But since then I have sent out in fits and starts - fits mostly.

Once I had discovered this I started sending the occasional thing out. I also made one of my New Year Resolutions to be to get my work out there more to send out at least one submission a week. The more work you send out, the more you stand a chance of having something accepted, and ultimately the more chance you have of a publisher taking your pamphlet or collection seriously - it's not rocket science. Amazingly once you start sending work out regularly it suddenly becomes less of a big deal. I have found that now I am sending out more and more work, and I have already had a few things accepted.

There are two things that really helped motivate me with this - one was being coached by a friend who was training as a writing coach - kind of like a life coach but for writers. She asked me lots of questions about my writing life that made me think about what I do and why - you can read more about that here. The second thing was reading a blog post by Canal Laureate Jo Bell, which you can read here. One of the things that Jo suggests is making a database or spreadsheet to track which pieces of writing you send where and when you might expect a reply by. This is a brilliant (and simple) idea. It means that you are less likely to submit the same poem to journals at the same time, or, and I have done this, send the same poem to the same journal twice.  I actually made two spreadsheets - one that shows which all the journals poems have been submitted to - I highlight the place it is eventually published in - and the other which shows what poems are currently out, where they have gone and when to expect a reply by. It has certainly revolutionised my submission practice.

Tuesday 17 February 2015

Family Albums and the Movability of Memory

Blow the bugles, bang the drums - I seem to have started a new sequence of poems, although I must confess that I am a little scared of looking at them in the cold light of day. The seed of the idea has been germinating away somewhere in deep in my mind for weeks. It started when I watched a film called Stories We Tell - a film that describes the journey of one family (or really one woman) through interviews with family members and friends, interspersed with old home movie footage and photos. It is a fascinating film and a moving story - or rather stories - because what the film highlights is how we all view events differently from one another, and how memory manipulates events over time to suit our own world view.

A few weeks later I went to my Grandma's funeral. One of the things that my aunts had done was to leave out some photo albums for us to look at, and in one were photos of my family (me, my dad and mum and brother and sister) that I had never seen before - as well as quite a few pictures of my father as a child.  Some of the photos in the album were identical to photos in our own family photo albums and this got me thinking about who might have taken the pictures. I had always assumed that it was my mum and dad - but actually it could just as easily have been visiting relatives.  We did have a family camera but I don't remember it being used very much. I guess developing photographs was expensive in the 1970s.  

Things have been busy since the funeral and I didn't think much more about the photos, but yesterday evening, for some reason, the whole idea of family albums came back into my mind. I decided to write a few poems or verbal sketches of photos from the photo albums of my childhood, but rather than get the albums out and look at the photos I would try and write about them from my memories of the photos.  This was an interesting exercise - writing a memory of a memory of a memory. It will be interesting at some point to look at the actual photographs and see if my memory of them is true. I may even write from some of the other photos, but for the moment it is the process that I am finding interesting. 

Another thing that happened was that writing about a memory of a picture led me to realise that I could take a leap further - what if I was to write about a picture that could have been taken but never was. We all have memories of things that happened and people who came and went from our childhood homes, but we don't always have any photographic evidence of these people. Nowadays we have mobile phones with photographic capabilities so everything is much more documented, but in the 70s and 80s developing film was expensive so people tended to mostly take pictures of special occasions - birthdays, holidays, that kind of thing. Human memory is pictorial - I have lots of memories of childhood that are like little home movies or still images that I can call to mind - like the children next door looking over the fence or my aunt coming to visit unexpectedly in her fur coat and bearing gifts of easter eggs and cuddly toys. I found myself writing about the non-existent photos of those memories.  Of course it could be that the poems will turn out to be nonsense - they may be more like small vignettes and be of no interest to anybody else but me. Whether this is the case or not it is interesting writing them and I imagine it may trigger other memories - if nothing else I will have fun. I wrote quite a bit about autobiographical poetry back in 2008. Here is a rough draft.

The Girl from Number 79

This is the girl from next door
who offered to take you swimming,
this is her standing on the top rung of the fence
looking into your garden,
here is your mother explaining how to hold
her hand as you cross the roads,
here you are with your mouth and nose
filled with chlorinated water,
and here you are again
under the wheels of a Morris Traveller,
the driver's mouth an O of surprise,
and here is the girl
whose name you can't remember
wearing her grumpy face
because your mum has changed her mind
and said you are too young to go.

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Books Read in 2014

  • Last first...

  • 93 In the Bee Latitudes - ‘Annah Sobelman (poetry)
  • 92) The Legend of Colton H. Bryant - Alexandra Fuller (non-fiction)
  • 91) Maggie and Me - Damaien Barr (non-fiction)
  • 90) The Gypsy and the Poet - David Morley (poetry)
  • 89) Every Day is for the Thief - Teju Cole (fiction)
  • 88) Notes From the Balcony - Lynn Woollacott (poetry)
  • 87) Like Rabbits - Lynne Bryan (fiction)
  • 86) Diary Of an Unsmug Married - Polly James (fiction)
  • 85) Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists (fiction - short stories)
  • 84) My Sister's Keeper - Bill Benners (fiction)
  • 83) The Mathematics of Friedrich Gauss: Family Snapshots - D.W. Wilson (fiction)
  • 82) All One Breath - John Burnside (poetry)
  • 81) Beneath Stars Long Extinct - Ron Egatz (poetry)
  • 80) Small Grass - Jacqueline Gabbitas (poetry)
  • 79) Place - Jorie Graham (poetry)
  • 78) The Beginner's Goodbye - Anne Tyler (fiction)
  • 77) The Waterproof Bible - Andrew Kaufman (fiction)
  • 76) Picture Me Gone - Meg Rossoff (fiction)
  • 75) And After All This I Saw: Selections from the Work of Julian of Norwich - Edwin Kelly (poetry)
  • 74) The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber (fiction)
  • 73) Irene - Piere Lemaitre (fiction)
  • 72) At the Time of Partition - Moniza Alvi (poetry)
  • 71) Black Country - Liz Berry (poetry)
  • 70) Wreaking - James Scudamore (fiction)
  • 69) Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee (fiction)
  • 68) Thunderstruck and other Stories - Elizabeth McCracken (fiction - short stories)
  • 67) Ballistics - D.W. Wilson (fiction)
  • 66) The Dead Lake - Hamid Ismailov (fiction)
  • 65) Strange Bodies - Marcel Theroux (fiction)
  • 64) When I was Five I Killed Myself - Howard Buten (fiction)
  • 63) Fauverie - Pascale Petit (poetry)
  • 62) Zoo Father - Pascale Petit (poetry, re-read)
  • 61) The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes (fiction)
  • 60) Snapper - Brian Kimberling (fiction)
  • 59) Imagined Sons - Carrie Etter (poetry)
  • 58) Under the Skin - Michael Faber (fiction)
  • 57) The Lake in the Woods - Tim O'Brien (fiction)
  • 56) Moontide - Niall Campbell (poetry)
  • 55) Comradely Greetings – Nadya Tolokonnikova (non-fiction)
  • 54) This is Yarrow - Tara Bergin (poetry)
  • 53) Parallax -Sinead Morrisey (poetry)
  • 52) Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn (fiction)
  • 51) Sins of the Leopard - James Brooks (poetry)
  • 50) The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion - Kei Miller (poetry)
  • 49) The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson (fiction)
  • 48) Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey (fiction)
  • 47) Ties that Bind - Catherine Deveney (fiction)
  • 46) Hoad and other Stories - Sarah Passingham (fiction, short stories)
  • 45) The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald (fiction)
  • 44) The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence (fiction)
  • 43) Erosion - S.A. Hemmings (fiction)
  • 42) Sic Transit Wagon and other stories - Barbara Jenkins (Fiction, short stories)
  • 41) The White Lioness - henning Mankell (fiction)
  • 40) The Impossible Dead - Ian Rankin (fiction)
  • 39) Hot Damn - Cat Woodward (poetry)
  • 38) Candide - Voltaire (fiction)
  • 37) Black Beauty - Anna Sewell (fiction)
  • 36) Sleeping Keys - Jean Sprackland (poetry)
  • 35) Double Negative - Ivan Vladislavic (non fiction)
  • 34) Planet-shaped Horse - Luke Kennard (poetry)
  • 33) Bysuss - Jen Hadfield (poetry)
  • 32) Division Street - Helen Mort (poetry)
  • 31) Tenth of December - George Saunders (fiction - re-read)
  • 30) Adventures in Form - edited by Tom Chivers (poetry)
  • 29) Bevel - William Letford (poetry, re-read)
  • 28) Barcelona - Philip Langeskov (fiction)
  • 27) Love Me Do - Lydia Macpherson (poetry)
  • 26) Gathering Evidence - Caoilinn Hughes (poetry)
  • 25) Perfect -Rachel Joyce (fiction)
  • 24) Strange Weather inTokyo - Hiromi Kawakami ( fiction)
  • 23) Standard Twin Fantasy - Sam Riviere (poetry)
  • 22) Forward Book of Poetry 2014 (poetry)
  • 21) Yoga - Tom Warner (poetry)
  • 20) Love, Nina, Despatches from Family Life - Nina Stibbe (non fiction)
  • 19) Instant-Flex 718 - Heather Phillipson (poetry)
  • 18) Enough About You - Notes Towards the New Autobiography - David Shields (non-fiction)
  • 17) Ink's Wish - Sarah Law (poetry)
  • 16) When the Killing's Done - T.C. Boyle (fiction)
  • 15) Violet - Selima Hill (poetry - re-read)
  • 14) The Marlowe Papers - Ros Barber (poetry)
  • 13) Pale View of Hills - Kazuo Ishiguro (fiction)
  • 12) Truffle Beds - Katherine Pierpoint (poetry)
  • 11) The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt (fiction)
  • 10) Stag's Leap - Sharon Olds (poetry, re-read)
  • 9) Splitfish - Kiran Millwood Hargrave (poetry)
  • 8) The Shock of the Fall - Nathan Filer (fiction)
  • 7) Conjure - Michael Donaghy (poetry)
  • 6) The Paraffin Child - Stephen Blanchard (fiction)
  • 5) Her Birth - Rebecca Goss (poetry)
  • 4) The Museum of Disappearing Sounds - Zoe Skoulding (poetry)
  • 3) Ice - Gillian Clarke (poetry)
  • 2) Life: An Exploded Diagram - Mal Peet (fiction)
  • 1) Fallen Land - Patrick Flannery (fiction)