Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Publishing Your Writing Online

I have to admit I'm old school when it comes to books and publishing. I love paper. I want to read from it, write on it and I want to be published on it. 

There is something most satisfying about the experience of reading a paper book, though when I was breastfeeding my youngest in the wee hours of the night I did reread the Sherlock Holmes stories on my phone as it was easier in that situation. I couldn't turn on a light, I was lying in an uncomfortable position and I didn't want to make much noise turning pages, ect. It was a stop gap and I have gone back to paper since. 

I also ideally want to see my work published on paper: in magazines, anthologies and books rather than online. While I still tend to focus on sending my work to printed magazines, I no longer avoid online journals. They have established their place in the world of publishing over the past decade and I am happy to see my work online from time to time. It's a double-edged sword; it widens the potential pool for finding a place for your poem or story but also means that you can be lost in an even bigger crowd of wanna-be-writers. 

I am not a total technophobe, sitting here writing my blog on my laptop, but I'm still wading out into these new-for-me waters. Looking at my Writing CV, I have been published on 6 online sites since 2004, four of them in the past 4 years with another one accepting 3 poems today - Writing in a Women's Voice. Thank you, Beate. Your blog is inspiring reading. 

Online magazines can come and go as fast as printed ones, but often their virtual presence exists long after the editors have downed tools which has its good and bad points: your poems are out there for everyone to see, even the ones you may have fallen out of love with. 

Publishing your work online means you have an immediate presence that prospective publishers can check up on. Getting your work into magazines and journals can be an important stepping stone to getting a book published, especially with short stories and poetry, but unless they subscribe to the magazines listed on your bio or they have somehow come across your work it's hard for editors to know if you really have the publishing record you claim.

I'm not going to go further and talk about self-publishing online here. I really don't have enough experience in the subject to offer any advice, but there are plenty of opportunities out there. Just tred cautiously, there are also a lot of scams out there.

Finding homes for your work online offers more chances to get that 'published' tick after a poem, but I still prefer to get that copy in the post and flip through to find my pages. It feels more real, I feel published, but while building up my CV, I will continue to take advantage of all opportunities to give my work a small showcase. 

Friday, 10 March 2017

Taking the Hits - Criticism

My mentoring session with WoMentoring started this week and though I knew what to expect it was always going to be an emotional journey.

The basic idea of mentoring is you work with a more established writer for a short period; getting advice on how to move your writing career forward, receiving feedback on your work and assistance in whatever areas you are struggling with. It is usually very individualised to your needs.

A big part of my requirements for my mentor was critical feedback on my writing. I have been in Finland for 7 years now and I've fallen away from the old writing groups, courses, literary circles I used to rely on to gauge responses to my writing. I still submit pieces to publishers so their yes or no responses are a rough guide, but not helpful in any real sense. 

I've submitted my work to group criticism almost from the beginning of my career. While at Uni pursuing my English degree, I joined a writing group and attended any workshops that visiting writers were offering. In Scotland, I took advantage of similar experiences: the great Scottish poet Tom Leonard ripped my poems apart back in 1992 and I still look back on it with a weird sense of pride. 

I know what to expect and how to handle it, but like I said, I'm out of practice so that first reading of my mentor's comments on my poems felt like a kick to the stomach. I did send an email afterwards explaining some missed references, but then I just left the poems alone. On paper at least, I was rolling them around in my head constantly. I was gutted, I always wish for gushing praises, but I know that's not what I really want or need. I need someone to look critically at my work and point out the weak lines, the problematic areas, the chaotic jumble of ideas in need of a focus. 

I did a free writing in a cafe while waiting for my son that evening and I did rant a bit about how she couldn't see this or understand that, but after an hour my conclusion was she couldn't see my references or understand my images because they weren’t clear enough. My writing was at fault. 

Criticism is personal, it is the critic's opinion and they are flawed and human, just like us. The critic brings their own style, interests and experiences into a poem and this colours how they respond to it and how they criticise it. And even a writer as good as Tom Leonard may have a bad opinion of a poem that does work for other people. Just because they suggest a change, it doesn't mean you have to follow those recommendations to the letter. Though Tom was right on the money with my work, I was a young, naive writer who had received nothing but praise from my University lecturers over the years and I needed to see where my work was failing. It was a brilliant wake up call, if very scary. 

Over the years I have learned to take in criticism and use it to re-examine my poems. I don't automatically change everything they point out, don't rip away all the lines they don't like or rewrite as they see fit. If I did, I wouldn't have much of the poem that was mine and I wouldn't be following my own writing instinct.

So yesterday, I re-examined my mentor's comments and went back to the poems. There were lines I agreed were forced, so they went, to some extent. Sometimes I kept part of a line as it had something needed saying, just in a different way. There were lines that were just filler, so they went. 

Two of the three poems she critiqued went back to bare bones and I'm still trying to figure out which way to go with them. I need to recapture the original spark that caused me to write them which can be difficult years after the fact. The other poem I kept most of what she didn't like because there was a major reference that wasn't clear, so I'm rebuilding, focusing on that metaphor.

Finding someone who provides good criticism of your work is hard. I tend to avoid family and good friends. They usually don't have the knowledge to respond to poetry in a helpful manner, don't want to hurt my feelings, think that praise is helpful. I go with writers whose work I admire and whose opinions I trust, writers I know who won't let their egos or professional jealousy colour their view. Writers I've worked with for years.

Praise is good when it’s deserved and specific, so you can see what is working. General praise of the ‘it’s nice, I like it’ variety doesn’t help you improve. Vague critical comments are equally unhelpful. You need to know what lines aren’t beautiful, which aren’t getting their point across, aren’t carrying their weight. Fix-its needed to be given sparingly, don’t tell a writer how to fix their poem. Point out what isn’t working for you and let them find a solution, in their voice and style, if they feel it's needed.

When I had my first collection accepted I paid a poet I knew well to review it. Her comments and criticisms pushed me in the right direction to make the collection the best I could. Positive critical feedback helps you grow as a poet, negative feedback can stunt your growth.

Writing groups are not always the best atmosphere for improvement. I have been to some where all they wanted was praise. Any comment that was critical was automatically shouted down with more praise. No one walked out wanting to improve their work. I’ve been to others where the comments were so negative and full of ‘fix-it my way’ type feedback that everyone left hating their work, they could only see the negatives. Finding a group that offers a good balance is difficult and I’ve been very lucky to work with facilitators who know how to create a good group atmosphere and with fellow writers who know how to provide helpful feedback.  

Accepting criticism of your work and using it to re-evaluate your writing is a necessary and important step to moving into the more public realm of writing and being published. Learning to deal with the fear and exposure can help strengthen your voice, so it's worth building up that slightly toughened skin. But don't be afraid to stick up for your writing, sometimes you are the expert of your own work. 

Good luck 

Friday, 3 March 2017

Publish or . . . Goals

I had two poems accepted for publication this week and I won't deny that it felt like a major accomplishment. I came back to my writing after almost a week off for the winter holiday (all the kids and other half at home, who can focus on writing) and have to admit I was dragged a bit down seeing two more rejections waiting for me. The editors who added a personal touch to my acceptance the following day were most appreciated. 

I've been sending my poems out constantly in the past 6 months or so. Almost as soon as they get rejected I'm sending them out again. Submission portals like Submittable help with this immensely. I am so glad that magazine publishers are moving away from postal submissions, especially as everything I send has to go abroad now. IRCs are an absolute pain in the proverbial. 

Electronic submissions are more likely to make their destination and are usually dealt with more quickly. You also have this permanent record of your rejections. I currently have 28 rejections and 2 acceptances in Submittable since 2015. That doesn't count the submissions I made via email or occasionally snail mail.

Although publishing has never been my major goal, I do want to get published. Ten years ago I had my poetry collection published and it was a rush to see the copy in my hands, my name of the cover. I am aiming towards that again, but I dither about how important getting published is to me.

I love getting my work accepted. Some of the joy is getting to put the little mark on my submissions file to show that the poem is no longer available to send out. To add it to my publications list, to know that someone else thinks it is a good piece of writing, but it is a fleeting excitement. Even when I get a copy of the magazine and see the poem in print, it doesn't have that same buzz. The magazine gets read, put on a shelf and forgotten. Getting a collection published or the ultimate goal for me one of my novels published, of course, is a greater prize than a magazine printing, but it's not why I suit up as often as I can.

I believe I get more enjoyment from writing and finishing a poem than from getting them published. When the writing is going well and I find a phrase that is just right, the buzz is much stronger, longer lasting than seeing my work in print. Everytime I reread what I think is a good poem or section of fiction, there is that sense of satisfaction. Of knowing that I have the ability to say what I want, to make it special. Having someone else see that beauty and talent is so reaffirming. I write even when all I see is rejections, month after month. The glimmers of hope last for a long time.

So I keep writing and I keep sending my work out for publication. I submit my novel to the occasional competition or to agents, I make up chapbooks or poetry samples for competitions, I'm finishing up a poetry collection so that can go out to publishers. 

I write to be heard, but my first audience is myself. The desire to continue writing has always been with me, it waxes and wanes with the phases of my life, but even when the literary world is saying No, I continue to push on.