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.