Monday, 26 February 2018

Making Writing Fit into Your Life

Last week was our half-term spring holiday and all the kids were home for most of the week. Luckily I had my blog post written because I know that even if they give me a bit of peace I don't write well with others in the house. 

My kids are not quiet by a long shot and even if they're playing nicely they are shouting, singing, stomping. They demand a million cups of milk (just one child), need someone to break up disputes, to help them fix or find toys, to put on plasters and remind them to eat or clean up one mess before starting on the next. They need regular exercise and getting out of the house. Damn, they need a lot of supervision.  

I love my kids and the chaos in some ways, but I like to write in silence. I was berated recently in an online group because I said I didn't listen to music when I wrote. Really, do people need such strong opinions on everything? I don't listen to much music in general besides in the car, but even background music distracts me too much to focus on my writing, especially poetry.

Over years of writing I have developed various routines that have changed with my circumstances. I used to write on trains and buses when I was commuting a great distance for work. When I lived in Greece I woke up early and sat at the window looking out over the sea before going to teach all afternoon and some evenings. I love to write in cafes and museums when I'm at home and when I'm travelling.

I've always written in notebooks and for the last 20 years or so with the same type of pen, but have recently widened this to include a laptop for fiction. Transferring pages and pages of scribbles can be quite time-consuming and that has become the biggest problem of my life since having kids: finding time for my writing. 

I was once many moons ago granted a bursary to finish my first novel. So for a short period, I became a full-time writer, or my version of it. I went to my allotment first thing after I woke (not early though, let's be realistic) and after working there for a bit I wrote in the greenhouse or if the weather was nice in the fresh air. Then I would go home, have lunch, write some more and then type out all my pages. I would also edit earlier chapters. Then it was time to be a grown-up and sort dinner, etc. I loved it, the rhythms of my days, the amount of work I could churn out, the sense of purpose. 

Now, I average about 3 hours a day if I'm lucky and that time has to include things like cleaning the house and prepping food for meals. I write my blog, write and edit poetry, my poetry collection and novel. I also submit work to magazines. I don't have time to linger among the brassicas before writing a chapter and then spend 2 hours typing it out again when I return home. I write poems between making soup and doing laundry. I submit poetry before I pick up my son for physio. I write in the physio's waiting room. I have a regular half hour of writing practice in a gluten-free bakery's cafe while waiting for my kids to finish their music lessons. I've written a lot of rough drafts in that cafe in the 4 years my son has been learning the guitar. 

It's not my ideal, but I have to make it work. I will never get back to those heady days of being a full-time writer. I'm lucky I don't have a full-time job on top of the kids at the moment, so I can carve out those three hours here and there. 

I carry my notebook with me everywhere and sometimes even write notes on my phone. I try to be strict about my writing time, don't browse on my phone until I've done the specified time. I keep a pen and paper next to my bed as I sometimes get ideas for lines or structure while I'm drifting off.

I know what works for me. I write at the kitchen table because I'm usually having to jump up to sort something on the stove. I also like the light in that room. I write first drafts of poems in my notebook over and over again until I have a strong basic structure. Then I type it up on the computer. I don't listen to music unless I need to get the feeling or the lines of a particular song for my novel. Then I listen once before heading back to silence. I work in spurts, taking short breaks to do something else, usually cleaning or maybe check FB for five minutes. I switch a lot between what I'm working on, so can do poetry, fiction and submissions all in the same morning.

It's taken me a long time to work out my writing habits and I've had to adapt and start over several times. You have to find what works for you. Try different locations, even around your own house. You don't need a desk, but sometimes it works best. 

Try different mediums, paper, laptop, large whiteboard for plotting. Try silence, with music or telly on in the background. Try long and short blocks of time. Write while communting or in places you wouldn't think of like waiting rooms, in soft play or in bed. 

Try different times of day. You might think you are a night owl, but by the time it rolls around you are too mentally exhausted to write anything of quality. So try early-ish in the morning, before your family awakes, before work. Or try after dinner when everyone's occupied by their own things. 

Make time for it and be flexible.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Creative Writing Degrees - Are They Worth It?

When I was a lass in the United States, looking for a University to call my own, there was no such things as creative writing degrees or MFAs and such. 

Well, there were, but I didn't know about them, didn't know I would be interested in that sort of thing in the future. They were definitely there: the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop has been around since 1936 and it's just down the road from where I grew up and the University of Montana near where I went to University is even older. I had never heard of them or any creative writing degrees.

I wanted to be a writer, but had been thinking along more practical lines. I signed up to a Wildlife Biology major with an English minor. I wanted to write for National Geographic, be the next Farley Mowat. OK maybe not exactly practical. After a year and a half of this I realised for various reasons that Wildlife Biology was not the field for me and switched to an English major. The University I attended didn't have a creative writing degree programme, but you could focus your degree electives on creative writing (or pre-law or education). So I doubled my focus on literature and creative writing. I attended every workshop and lecture I could fit in, every reading held in the town. I joined a writing group through the University. I loved it, but by the time I heard about creative writing degrees I was looking more to leaving the country rather than continuing my education. I signed up to a literature M.Phil in Scotland and the rest is history.

To be honest, looking back on my writing then I think I would have struggled to get a place on a MFA. My writing wasn't really that good and the programmes available out there were few and elite. Or so they seemed. 

So I slogged away on my own, writing away every free moment I had. I had no real goal in mind, I just needed to write. I craved it, used it to remember and celebrate the good times as well as sift through difficult situations. 

I was lucky enough to work in publishing early on where I got a first-hand look at rejection and publication from the other side. This gave me the confidence to start trying to get my poems published.

Around the late 90s, I realised how popular creative writing courses were and how they could benefit writers. I couldn't really afford a course, I needed to work, editing, waitressing, freelancing with teaching and other things. I didn't have a lot of free time. I slowly started getting my work published, took the occasional evening course, joined lots of writers' groups and workshops over the years and eventually began to teach them. 

All the time, I was glancing at the creative writing degrees popping up in Scotland, first St Andrews, I think, and then Glasgow and Edinburgh. I saw the success of writers connected with these programmes and wondered if it would be worth my while to join one. 

Doing a creative writing degree, at any level including PhD, has its major benefits. First of all, you suddenly have a tribe. No more the lonely writer in the garret. Well, yes, writing is still a solitary activity, but you have workshops to share your work, events to attend, like-minded people to talk to and most importantly teachers and mentors to guide your writing. You can get a bit of this from writers' groups and working hard to be in the literary scene, but walking into an already established programme saves a lot of hard work. 

The tribe follows you once you've completed the course. There are literary magazines that focus on publishing students and alumni of certain writing programmes and 'who you know' is as important in the publishing world as it is in any other field. Friends and colleagues promote and recommend each other, of course they do. 

You also get time to focus on your writing, to really break it down to learn the underpinnings of poetry and fiction and to discover and develop your own themes and interests. You write analytical essays on your own work as well as literary examinations of other writers. This time and focus can be so beneficial to improvement, but I'm sure it can also lead to burn-out. I know after spending 3 years dissecting writers I loved to learn their techniques in my literature degrees, I sometimes grew out of love with them. It must be more difficult if it's yourself and your own work. 

In a degree course, you get used to criticism and rejection as well. Not every piece will be perfect and you'll learn to recognise this and hopefully how to avoid or repair the problems probably faster than a self-taught writer. Good teachers will give a balance of support, encouragement and criticism. 

There are negatives, of course. Degrees can be expensive and in no way guarantee success. It's not just writing your own poems or stories, you have to read tons of other people's work, do proper essays and thesis just like regular university degrees. That's one thing that's put me off. I don't want to go back to university after having done two degrees already. I want to focus just on my own writing. And just because you walk away with a MFA or whatever in creative writing it doesn't mean your writing is good or sellable. 

And just because the tutors and lecturers and visiting writers are hopefully established and experienced it doesn't mean they will give you the best feedback for your writing. They are human and have their own interests and styles which may not mesh well with yours or with teaching in general. I've attended workshops from 'names' that were a waste of time because the visiting writer was drunk or had something else going on which were not helpful to giving feedback to novice writers. I've been shouted at, had poems torn apart in public with no consideration for my inexperience. I've also had poems praised to a false level which also didn't help me in the future as I thought I was good when I really needed more critical guidance. 

The explosion of creative writing degrees over the past 30 years also means your tribe becomes your competition. Universities continually churn out new 'writers', but publishing houses are publishing less, rarely taking on new names. With the internet, e-books and on-demand publishing anyone can publish their own books, so chances are you will be lost in the crowd if you self-promote. Jobs for writers like writer-in-residence or creative writing teaching posts are rare and highly competitive and with the economic down-turn community groups and arts funding agencies are cutting back on supporting them. 

I know a few writers who have done very well after finishing writing degrees, but I also know that they were good before they started the course. I'm sure the course improved their skills and saleability, but was it necessary to help them along. I'm also sure that lots of graduates from these degrees drop off the map. You'll find examples on both sides of the aisle, those who have succeeded after creative writing degrees, those who have done so off their own backs and those who have failed whatever their background. Would I be doing better in my own career if I attended a creative writing programme? No one can really say. 

It really is a personal choice. Creative writing degrees can translate into other careers, the skills of improving your writing, being able to read, analyse, comprehend and critique written text are essential in many careers. So it's not necessarily a waste to attend one, but it's also not always the most beneficial move. It might be the boost your writing needs, but they are a huge commitment and not for the faint-hearted. 

I'd love to hear from those who have a creative writing degree. Did it help or hinder you? Would you recommend it?

Monday, 12 February 2018

Submission Carpet Bombing

I recently read an article about the advice a writer would give to herself after she finished her MFA in writing. It was pretty unconnected to my own circumstances because I have never done a creative writing degree. I did some creative writing courses in college as electives for my English BA. I've considered going back and getting a PhD or Master's in creative writing, but that's for another post. Mainly I've been self-taught and motivated.

Back to the article the phrase that caught me was 'carpet bomb lit mags for years'. The article's author was saying it wasn't a good idea - though I'm not sure if she considered it a bad idea overall or just right after you've graduated with your MFA. Her alternative suggestion was take your time, do lots of writing lots of research to find what magazines you love and then submit to them, rather than just sending your work to anybody and everybody in the hope that you'll get published more often.

It made me re-examine my 100 rejections experiment I've been trying over the past year. The idea of 100 rejections is to submit to as many magazines as possible in order to get as many publications as possible. It is essentially carpet bombing the literary scene with your submissions.

I agree with the author to a point. There is a time to start submitting your work and the early days is not it. Build up a stable of well-written, well-worked, ready to be published poems, essays, stories or at least one totally finished and edited novel. Put in the time learning the techniques, hone your writing and then be brave and face the slush pile of literary magazines, the harsh gaze of the readers and editors.

Am I devaluing my work by sending it to as many journals as I can? As much as I would love to spend time reading tons of the best literary magazines, picking my favourites and then submitting only to them, it would achieve limited results and have a lot of problems en route.

First of all, I live in Finland, I can't pop down to the local bookstore or library and spend time researching literary magazines, there just aren't many available here. I can't show up at lots of English language literary events and get known that way, at least not outside Finland which is where I have to focus my visibility because of my lack of Finnish. I also can't afford to subscribe or even buy sample copies of every magazine I'm interested in or even a select few.

Instead, I do as much online research as I can about the magazine. Sometimes they have a sample from a recent issues, online magazines usually have everything archived, but often print magazines don't offer any suggestions of what they publish besides a few contributors' names. Do check those out though, are there names you recognise and like, aspire to write like? Often I'm left reading the information the editors put on the submission guidelines, the About page, the Masthead, etc for an inkling of what they like. I also go from suggestions from other writers I like and know, where have they been published, what magazines would they recommend.

I have a lot of poems I'd like to see published and most magazines only accept between 1-5 poems from each contributor. When the magazines I'm most interested in reject me, which they most likely will as the demand of prospective writers is always larger than the space they have in the magazine, what am I to do then, sit on my poems? Submission windows can be short and often only once a year and many magazines have rules about how often writers can submit. I remember writers who used to pester the magazine I worked at with constant submissions, not great technique to win over an editor, so best avoided.

I think it's most beneficial to cover a wide range of magazines, from online to print, from the more middle of the road to the prestige. Aim high but be realistic. I could submit to Granta until I'm blue in the face, but chances are I'm never going to get published there, so why shouldn't I try magazines that aren't my favourites or the best, but are good magazines in their own right?

And while it is important to put the majority of your focus into the writing and building up your talent there, you do need to get your name out into the public eye, especially in poetry, in order to get a book or collection published. Novelists can come out of the shadows with their first novel and make a big name for themselves, but this is almost impossible for a poet. Before an editor would really consider a first collection, they want to see some sort of publication record for these poems. Poetry is such a big risk, low gain occupation that publishers want to see that other editors have seen the talent in this author before taking a chance on their work.

I don't write to please a particular magazine or editor. I write what I want to write, how I want to write it and hope that I find a magazine that likes my style and subject. It's hard, I've been sending my poems about being an immigrant to magazines that have calls for such and I'm not being accepted, most likely because I am not the kind of immigrant that is in the news just now, that needs increased awareness. I realise this and accept it, but I'm not going to change what I'm writing about, I'll just continue to look for different venues for my work. Write for yourself, but don't give up with the first rejections. Re-examine the piece and move on. 

I took such a long time out away from trying to get published while I was still writing poems that I ended up with a backlog of unpublished work. Even with the flurry of the past year or two (30 poems published), I still have over 80 unpublished poems. I'm not expecting that they'll all find a magazine to call their first home, but the more I get my poetry out there, the better chance I have of finding a publisher for my collection.

So I'm going to keep carpet bombing magazines with my poems with no guilt. I still put as much time and effort into writing my poems than I did before starting my 100 rejections project, if not more. It has helped motivate me to write more and to strive harder to bring my poems up to 'publication ready' status.

Find what works for you in terms of motivation, time, effort and readiness. Don't spend more time researching and submitting to magazines that you do writing. Don't send out articles or stories that are not ready. If you find you're taking rejection too hard, take a step back and focus on improving your work rather than publication. Writing a piece you can be proud of is always the first goal.

Good luck.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Bringing Together a Poetry Collection

I am one poem away from finishing my Scottish poetry collection. So close, but that last poem is resisting being completed. While I ponder how to bring this final poem to culmination, I've started looking at my collection as a whole in preparation to sending it to a publisher. 

This collection has gone through a myriad of transformations. It's currently titled Version 3, but it has changed form many times. I've recently amended the title but I've also changed its focus over the years. The earliest back-up I've found from 2005 only bears a slight resemblence to its current version. 

It's always been centered around my Scottish poems, but originally there was also a side theme of looking at art. I have a large amount of poems that connect to an artwork, either my reaction to it or an imagining from it. Most of the art was found in Scottish museums or were by Scottish artists, so I felt there was a connection, but I eventually decided it was too tenuous. 

Then as I had more and more Finnish poems to work with the collection became half-Scotland and then the transition to Finland and a longing for Scotland. The Finnish poems began to take on a life of their own, so now the collection is just about Scotland. I finished a longer series - well, almost, that one stubborn poem is from this series, so had enough for a full collection. It feels more complete to me now, no side themes or splitting of the focus. 

When you finally have enough poems for a collection (and that point is purely up to you) there's the question of how to order it. My mentor from last year suggested looking at breaking the poems into themed groups and using quotes, section titles or something similar to bring them together. I did play with the idea for a while. There are obvious groupings within the collection, but I didn't like the idea of putting them together in chunks or following a pattern in the placement. I also considered adding the poems chronologically as the collection covers my 17 years of living in Scotland from a single student to a mother of 2. This felt a bit better, but the flow wasn't obvious to someone outside my head. 

I decided to meld the two ideas together. The poems flow semi-chronologically but have a thematic sense throughout; a few city poems, followed by nature poems together, then a relationship poem or 2. There are no sections, I want a natural movement from one poem to the next, some image, subject matter or linguistic thread carrying them along. 

I figure all this out by printing the whole thing out and laying them on my living room rug, all 70 plus pages. The kids find it hilarious when I do this and yes, I have done it more than once. There's something about crouching down, walking among the poems that helps me see how they work together. I don't get that same feeling on a computer screen. It has an organic feel like walking through a garden I have spent years cultivating. It's also easier to physically move poems about until I get the right feel, rather than cutting and pasting and risking losing a stanza or a footnote or a whole poem. I'll probably do this one more time once I have the complete set. 

There's still the fine editing to do. As I've said previously I reexamine and edit every poem as I send it out for submissions, but once they are published I don't look at them again until I reach this stage. Many of the poems were published years ago and I'll want to tidy them up, but I also like to edit the collection as a whole. Sometimes I become fixated on a certain word or image, but decide it might be better to find a few replacements or conversely play up the word even more through poem placement. Sometimes my preferences and writing style have changed or I want to bring them closer together for more cohesion. I have looked back on my first collection and realise I would do a lot of things differently now though it felt right 10 years ago. I'll also look at basic things like grammar, layout, fact checking, etc. 

I'm also in the process of writing a synopsis for the collection. With novels, potential agents and publishers usually require a synopsis to sell the book to them. It can be anywhere between 200 words and 2 pages. I've also had a publisher request a chapter by chapter summary - that was hell to write. I also like to have a short synopsis of my poetry collection to bring the different themes into focus quickly for the publisher. It's basically a sales technique, but it's worth having a good one to sell your collection. Most publishers ask for just a few sample poems before requesting the whole collection, so this is my chance to make sure my message gets across.  

Most of the above I can do while this final straggler is simmering in the background. I'm hoping to get this project ready to serve up in the next few months. I'm still writing poems for the Finnish collection so I have a nice balance of work to do between them and the novel. To be honest, I need more hours in the day.