Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Submission Etiquette

I'm still madly sending out submissions of my poetry and have hit a few bumps this year, so I thought I'd quickly go over some basic rules for submitting your work to magazines and some problems that might come up and how to solve or avoid them. Competitions and manuscript submissions to publishers follow slightly different rules which I won't touch on here.

If you're not familiar with the magazine, do some research. If you can't get a copy, go to their website, read their mission statement, the masthead, the About section, have a squint at any samples or online issues they have available. Learn what the editors are looking for and what their aims are for the magazine. Does your work fall into the style, genre, theme they're hoping for? If not, is it worth sending them that piece?

Then check out the Submission Guidelines. Read these very carefully. Some magazines are super picky about how they want the poems or stories formatted. They might have a limit for a word count or number of lines. Some want your name and address on every page, some don't want your name anywhere. Follow them to the letter, it's a shame when a submission is rejected just because you didn't follow a simple instruction. I've had one magazine reject my submission twice already because when they say don't put your name on the cover letter, they mean the cover letter, the title of the submission, the file name, everything. It has been returned to them with my name removed from everything, so fingers crossed third times the charm. If you have any questions about what the guidelines mean, contact the magazine.

It's always nice if you can find out the Editor's name and use that, but I've often found that magazines can have guest editors for certain issues, don't update their websites as often as they should, so I do just use the bland Dear Editor for most letters unless I know the editor specifically or they've contacted me previously about resubmitting work. Which some editors are nice enough to do - a short note of 'these poems don't quite make it, but I like your writing, please send me some more to consider'. And when they do take the time to say that they mean it. I had one editor say this and I thought they were just being nice. The next week they wrote me again and said 'really, I'm going to press soon, I want to include some of your poems, send something today if you can'. So I did. If you're not sure again, ask when they would be ready to see more, when the next submission window is, etc?

If you're doing a simultaneous submission (sending to more than one magazine, journal, competition at a time), double check their rules regarding this. I didn't submit work to more than one magazine for a long time, but have been recently quite a bit. I tend to only submit to 2 at a time unless something comes up that a poem would be perfect for while it's already out at two mags. Usually I haven't had a problem, I get so many rejections that there isn't much cross-over, but yesterday, I had to inform 3 different magazines that I was removing poems from my submission because they had been accepted by another journal. Luckily, they all said they encourage simultaneous submissions, so there should be no problem.

Picking and prepping your work:
This often takes the most time, finding poems that fit the magazine's remit, setting up the file to the guidelines and then having another look over just to make sure the poems are as good as possible. If there's no font recommended in the guidelines, use a 12-point nice clear font like Times New Roman or Arial. One poem per page, stories double spaced. Remember editors and their readers go through hundreds of submissions a week sometimes, so make it easy for them. Take the time to make your submission as good as possible.

Keep records:
If you only use Submittable, it keeps note of what is happening to your submission, but if you submit by snail mail or by email address or if the magazine has their own submission portal, it's important you keep track of when and where you sent it. I've had problems where I've used the wrong email, an old one for example, or where an email has gone astray somewhere between me and the editor so it's very helpful if you can say when you sent it, what poems and how you sent it, so they can check their records carefully.

I haven't used Duotrope, but I've seen it referenced on several blogs and sites. It seems to allow you to keep track of your submissions, but also helps you find magazines and read and write reviews on the magazines and their submission process. There is a charge of about 5 dollars a month which is why I haven't bothered.

I have two files, one Excel for the non-Submittable submissions and one just a general Word File about each poem, where it's been submitted, where it is currently which keeps me on top of things.

Chasing up late responses:
With the advent of electronic submissions the response time of most magazines has sped up exponentially, sometimes you get a response within the week. However, it's still not unusual for some to take months or longer to respond. I tend to chase up after 6 months, to make sure the submission hasn't gone astray or if I missed a response. I've had one magazines forget to tell me they were publishing my work this year, one that told me they were rejecting it and then sent me publishers' proofs, one that had gotten lost somewhere. Before chasing them up it's worth going back to their website and see if they've listed an update of why they're delayed. Sometimes magazines decide to fold, sometimes they need to take a break, sometimes they don't respond to rejections, so if you haven't heard within several months it's a reject. 

Don't trust Submittable either, form letters are easy to mix up, technology glitches. I also have 3 poems sitting with In-Progress listed when I know they've been accepted for publication and I think the anthology has already gone out.

Be polite and include details of what was sent, how and when. If I get no response after a couple of weeks, I assume the piece was rejected though I've sometimes had magazines get back in touch after months to say they're still considering my work.

Remember: magazines are often inundated with hopeful writers' work and most are understaffed and underfunded. They do their best to stay on top of things, but it isn't easy and even with all the new technology they are human and make mistakes. Always be polite. I remember the huge pile of submissions to be read that came in every day in the post when I worked at a literary magazine in Scotland. I'm sure the full email/Submittable inboxes are equally daunting.

If you make a mistake: be honest and own up. Contact the magazine as soon as you notice and explain. I have sent emails without attachments (don't send submissions when you're tired) or to the wrong address. They're usually understanding. 

I have also sent poems with mistakes or without saving changes I've made. Those are my fault and I don't ask to have the poems replaced or reconsidered. I accept I've messed up and that they will probably be rejected just for my own incompetence. I learn from it and move on. 

Always proof your work even if you just sent it out and it was fine. Check again, spell check, save and update. Your work is your representative, if it's a mess with typos and silly mistakes, the editors are right to reject it on that basis alone. 

Accept rejections gracefully and don't get into a debate with the editor about the merits of your work. I once accidently started a cover letter email with the Finnish word for hello 'Hei' as I had been writing Finnish emails that morning and hadn't totally switched my brain over to English. The editor then basically mocked my 'poor spelling' and apparent lack of formal writing style with his response. It was poor behaviour from the editor, but I left it. Yes, I made a mistake and yes, he was a jerk, but what was I going to gain by pulling him up on it? I've been on the end of an endless reading pile and used to get fed up with the poor spelling and inappropriate or impolite cover letters, so I can understand his frustration, but I always managed to maintain a civil facade, I hope. I probably won't submit to that magazine for a long time, but there's plenty of others out there who deserve my writing. Editors have their own opinions and ideas of what is good writing. They may not gel with what you think, but it's their little kingdom so sometimes you must back away respectfully and head off somewhere else. 

Keep writing and keep sending things out. Somewhere there is a magazine editor that will love your stuff. Good luck with finding them. 

Monday, 4 December 2017

Switching to Fiction

For the first two-thirds of this year I've been focussed on poetry, working with a mentor, writing new poems constantly, editing, submitting them. In October I started an online fiction class through Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland and now my focus is entirely fiction. I've had 2 or 3 poems that I've been finishing up, but since then my brain has run dry of inspiration for new pieces. 

I'm rewriting and editing my second novel Imprint in Gold. I finished the first draft back in 2010 but it's festered in silence until last year when I took the novel class again. I've attended the course several times over the past 10 years or so, twice on campus in Glasgow with the original instructor and 2 or 3 times online with other tutors. 

It's a brilliant course which I'd highly recommend, there are 3 levels from complete beginners to those who have a novel in mind or on the go. All examine practical techniques and tips for writing, but also offer feedback on your writing from the tutor and your peers. While the course provides tons of material about writing which is invaluable to improving your writing, it's the feedback and deadlines I need most. There are 3 assignments from 2000-3000 words each term and these get me working again. Then the feedback helps me edit and refocus my writing. 

There are a few online writing courses from the Open University to Gotham Writers in New York, but this is the only one I've done myself. A little research will help you find one that fits your needs.

But now that I have the writing group here in Finland, I probably won't sign up for the course again in the near future. The writing group gives me the same kick from the weekly deadline and feedback. I'm also able to give them the whole novel, a bit at a time, rather than just 3 random chunks. I've been using the course this term to work on one specific problem I'm having and the writing group to just start from the beginning with editing and rewriting.

Fiction is not my strong skill, it is hard work in a way that poetry isn't. For some reason I can't write short stories. It comes out either as novels or poetry. I love diving into the world of my characters in novels, getting to shape it all and to flesh them out. I tend to write through what I've learned is called the discovery method, no plan for what the novel will be, no plot before-hand, just let the characters show me their story. This is a fun way to write, but it's not good for the second draft, editing stages because I've had to go back and stitch things in to the story, develop bits that have become important as the story goes along. It's exhausting, thinking of how the two plot lines are working out and getting it all to flow. 

As a result I haven't written many new poems for a few months, after churning them out the first part of the year. I'm still submitting constantly and trying to finish a few stragglers that just won't come together. I know that focus will come back to me, but at the moment I'm enjoying my novel. It feels like I'm using a different part of my creative brain, much more in-depth and rigourous. 

So I'm under a blanket and a cardigan, editing and rewriting spring in the Iowa as Finland heads into the darkest part of the year. Hope you've found a way to keep warm. 

Monday, 6 November 2017

Competitions and Awards

For years, I've always been uncertain about whether to apply to writing competitions. Most of them cost something to enter, whether it be £5 for a poem or £25 for a novel or poetry collection samples. I've always disliked paying as the chances of winning are pretty slim. While I don't begrudge the magazine or publisher using competitions to top up their limited incomes as I know how difficult it is to keep on top of the bills these days, I also have to think of my own bank balance. I don't pay to submit my work to magazines either. So I've tended to enter no fee ones or competitions that allow 2 or more poems for one small fee.

I have never known what type of poems to submit to competitions. What are the judges looking for, how do I know if my poems are competition material? They say read the previous winners, but judges change yearly with most competitions, so it's kind of impossible. I've basically decided not to entry single poem competitions unless they're free.

However, I've been entering more expensive competitions lately for my finished novel or for pamphlet or poetry collection competitions. With my novel, I figure the more people I can get to read it the better, as word of mouth is important in the publishing world, getting your name out there. But also winning or being short-listed for a competition, even for the first chapter or a section would help getting it published. I've been aiming for competitions that are connected to agencies or publishers and include being published or given a free critical feedback of my novel as a prize.

Publication for my poetry collection is also my aim. Pamphlets are harder as I'm again never sure what kind of pamphlet will grab the judges, but I occasionally submit to them. In the past two years I've applied to 11 competitions for my novel and poetry and have had my novel long-listed for two competitions which is encouraging, but I've never come any closer to winning.

I've also recently applied to a couple of awards which instead of giving prizes based solely on your writing they focus on your need or situation. I've applied for one for artists who are also parents and one for a grant to help pay for a place at a writer's retreat. Both are closed now, but Aerogramme Studio is a good place to find more these awards. These are not something I've ever considered applying for, but part of my push back into the writing world is to jump at new opportunities in order to get my work seen.

The application process for these awards is often complicated; long applications, finding referees and prepping your work to their specifications. It's good practice even if you don't think you have a chance to win. If you apply for grants for projects or awards from Arts Councils the procedure is similar, luckily I have some experience with them. 

I find the challenge of finding an appropriate poem or novel section is a good practice for looking critically at your work and to consider yourself as more than a closet scribbler. Get your work and name out there. And you never know you might win something. Good luck. 

Friday, 6 October 2017

Reading to Write

You have to read to be a good writer, read constantly. Authors you love, envy, even those who you dislike but have got a certain style or knack of doing something right (Hemingway falls into this category for me). I find that I can't read a lot of fiction when I am writing first drafts, but I read as much as I can before and after. 

You can also read to learn to improve your writing. There are lots of books for writers out there that can all be helpful in their own ways, you just need to decide what style you need. 

Warning: don't spend all your time reading how-to-write books instead of writing. These books are meant to supplement your writing, inspire it and help improve it. Reading all the books in the world won't help you write if you don't pick up a pen or sit at the laptop (and not surf FB).

I fall between liking books that giving me lots of writing prompts and those that are about specific craft problems. I struggle with plots, so often seek out books specifically on that topic. But some days I just need a kick up the bum and then I will dip into some old favourites to get me going again.

One book that really inspired and helped me early on was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Published in 1986 it has become a creative writing bible. It promotes the idea of writing exercises and writing everyday which really clicked with me. Mixed with references to meditation and Zen Buddhism it is a bit new ageish, but they are not overwhelming. Natalie's main focus is to get you writing. I've read some of her follow-up but they didn't really push me in a way that Bones did. 

Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, 1994, was a good follow-up to Goldberg's book, dealing with some of the troubles that pop up when you make writing a daily habit. Her religious undertones were a bit much for me, but on a practical side the book is very helpful. 

A book focusing on poetry that really struck a chord with me was The Triggering Town, 1979 by Richard Hugo. I was living in the Pacific Northwest at the time, Hugo's stomping ground, and I could see so much of my surroundings in Hugo's work, but also I loved his idea of a triggering town, using a subject or word as a trigger to start off the reader's journey into the world of the poem, real or imagined, focusing on the language and its music once they are drawn in. Hugo's gentle self-effacing tone was a lovely introduction of workshopping and owning your poems for me. 

I think I have previously mentioned A Writer's Book of Days, 1999, by Judy Reeves which has hundreds of writing prompts to help you find inspiration for your daily writing exercises or for when writer's block hits.

On the fiction side I have turned back many times to The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, 1991, based on his lecturers to beginning creative writing students over the years. It contains some analysis, some practical exercises and lots of things to look out for. 

There are also practical books like Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E B White published first in 1918 which discusses grammar and usage rules for writing in English. Dry, but it's a good reference for editing. 

There are very technical books like Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook, 1994 which breaks down the elements of poetry with lots of examples of styles. It's great for getting started but if you've studied literature or been writing poetry for a while it may feel very basic. 

There are lots of good books I haven't read. I keep meaning to pick up Stephen King's 2000 memoir On Writing. I've heard it mentioned many places as inspiring and helpful, but I've never had the chance to pick it up. Here's a hint of his rules for writing to get us all started. 

It's best to dip in and out of these books rather than spend lots of time reading them. I often try the writing exercises or editing ideas out as I read, so that they just don't become filler.

Any suggestions for new books or old favourites always welcomed here. 

Happy autumn. 

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Writing Groups - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I've been attending writing groups since I was in University doing my first degree, so for around 25 years. For me they are a necessary tool of creative writing. No matter how much time I spend writing on my own, editing and refining a piece, I need feedback to really see if it works. 

Writing in isolation can blind you to obvious mistakes. I read my pieces out loud and this helps point out a lot of weak areas, but speaking to others about my characters, my intentions and my process helps me know when a poem is ready to fly out on its own and when a chapter fits into my greater scheme of a novel. 

But finding a group that works for me is always a game of trial and lots of error. When I was in University or in a big city in Scotland I was spoiled for choice. If one group didn't work out, I could always hunt around and find another. I've done the gambit of different groups, in pubs, libraries, community centres, through courses with total beginners and experienced writers. I've had great experiences and total failures, but they haven't put me off trying to find a new one when I need it. 

Each group has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some can lean too heavily towards one genre: fiction, sci-fi, poetry and if you don't share that interest, it won't be a right fit for you. Nothing worse than being the only poet in a group full of fiction writers who insist they don't understand poetry and have nothing to say about it. Some focus on group critiques, lots of sharing of work and giving feedback. Others prefer a more practical approach with prompts and writing exercises, discussions on craft, guest speakers. If you can find a group that combines these two, you're doing well. 

But there's also the atmosphere of the group to consider, built-up by the main participants, the loudest voices. I've been to groups where they never wanted to hurt the writer's feelings, so there it was less critique and more of a love fest. Anything that suggested the piece wasn't perfect was immediately smothered with flowers and candy. This doesn't help the writer improve their work. 

Other groups can be too negative, too full of 'fix-its' as a past fiction mentor of mine used to say, the readers totally rewriting the piece in their image. The writer then lacks confidence in their abilities and doesn't trust their own gut. You need to be able to speak up in defence of the lines of poetry you love, the characters who you understand more than anyone and not be shouted down. You need willing ears as well as vocal critics. 

A group should be able to maintain a balance of positive reinforcement on what is going right in the piece and neutral critical feedback about what isn't. Neutral in the sense of not telling the writer that something is wrong, but that you as a reader are not getting the impact of that section, mood, character, line. The critic shouldn't tell them how to fix it, unless the writer asks, and shouldn't insist that it is wrong or needs to be changed. It's hard to do as we have opinions we want to share, but they need to be aware of the writer's needs, not to have their writing which is often very close to the bone torn apart, but understood as a fluid thing that is still developing with a lot of the writer's hopes and ambitions attached. 

The writer should always have the chance to explain their intention, answer any questions and ask their own or if they prefer just accept the feedback and go home to ponder it. 

Finding a writing groups in Finland has been much more difficult as I'm much more limited in my choices. The language barrier is the biggest issue, writers here work in Finnish or Swedish and I just couldn't keep up. And poetry is hard enough to understand in your native language, I wouldn't get in-depth feedback unless their English was pretty impeccable. 

I did try and start my own English language writing group, twice. But as my main pool of writers were immigrants who were not permanent to the country, both groups fizzled out when the members moved on. I also disliked being the only leader, I felt I couldn't bring my own work too often. I prefer to be a participant. 

My mentor from earlier in the year recommended a private online poetry group which I was quite keen on. I've never been in an online group that wasn't connected to a course or in a group just made up of poets. I had high hopes. I've been starving for connection with poets, reading others work and sharing mine with people who can understand. 

I've found that sharing work online is too loose. There's no deadlines, no show up at a certain time and give feedback, so people dip in as they please, comment on what they want. They have the good policy that you had to respond to two other poems before you could post your own, so I jumped in commenting on new posts and eventually adding my own poems. 

I know I'm the new guy but I felt my work was just not considered. The site has this annoying function where you can see how many people view a post and how many comment and the discrepancy between the two is frustrating, especially in the summer when you think no one's commenting because they're not around and you then see that they are looking at your post, just deciding for whatever reason not to comment. I just haven't felt part of the community yet, but I plough on. I may just need more time to find my fit. 

I've also started last week attending the local university's writing group organised by the English Department's students. They say that they have that nice mix of submitting work and more practical sessions that I mentioned earlier. There is also seems to be a good mix of fiction, screen and poetry (I'm told, I haven't heard any yet) writers. I'm a lot older than most of the writers, but it's nice to part of a real life group again. to discuss writing in a passionate way. I've really missed it. 

So test the waters of your local group. If that one doesn't fit, try another. It's a great way to build your confidence, get personalised help with your writing and to make friends with the same interests. And if you're interested in publishing it can be a good way to get info and build contacts. 

Writing groups take the writer out of their lonely attic and gives them a community. Do give it a try. 

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

100 Rejections

School has started back up here in Finland so the kids are all out of the house for at least a few hours a day, so I'm back to the grind. 

I read an interesting article by Kim Liao recently about aiming for 100 rejections from magazines and competitions in a year. It sounds negative and maybe a bit masochistic, but it is actually quite motivating. Once you learn that rejection is not the end of the writing process. 

The idea is that in order to get 100 rejections you have to make at least 100 submissions and by making that many you will have a better chance of getting some acceptances. 

Without knowing there was a trend, I've been following the same idea. I try to submit to everything I can. I scroll the sites that call for submissions as found on this post and I make a list of magazines, grants, competitions I'm interested in and their deadlines. It's on my computer's desktop so I see it everytime I turn it on, so hopefully I won't miss a deadline. And as poems come in, I take note if they will suit certain themed issues, so I don't make too many simultaneous submissions. I reread my work carefully, make any changes I feel necessary and then send them out into the world again.

I've had 20 rejections so far this year for both my novel and my poetry. But I've also had 5 acceptances. That's one/fifth of my total submissions that have been decided upon. Not bad really. 

Over halfway through the year and I realise I'm no way near getting to my 100 rejection goal. I have 19 submissions still out there pending decision for chapbook and novel competitions, awards and regular poetry submissions. As soon as one comes in rejected, I send it back out again. The hard bit is the waiting while everything's out, but I try to fill that time by writing new poems.

Which I'm happy to say I'm getting back into the flow of after the long summer break. I've done lots of journal writing and note taking, but now I am able to focus on some poems that were in progress and start a few new ones. 

So how are you doing after the summer lag?

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Summer Silence - Links for Calls to Submissions

As predicted I will be away from the blog over a large part of the summer. We've been away for a week with very limited internet access and now I'll have all the kids at home for 3 weeks until our next trip. I'm not writing as much, but I am trying to keep my submissions going out. 

Here are a few good sites for finding calls for submissions, with a bit of emphasis on UK publishers and competitions. 

Cathy's Calls and Comps - http://compsandcalls.com/wp/ - a really good site I've come across this year. She has a good mix of worldwide calls for submissions and competition announcements. 

Scottish Book Trust Opportunities for Writers - http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/writing/opportunities-for-writers - especially useful for Scottish writers, but also for UK listings. 

Poetry Ireland's Opportunities  for Writers - http://www.poetryireland.ie/writers/opportunities/ - a focus on Irish publishing.

Literary Mama - http://www.literarymama.com/tag/calls-for-submissions - useful for writing about being a mother, but also covers other categories. Mostly US based. 

Trish Hopkinson - https://trishhopkinson.com/category/call-for-submissions/ - I've mentioned her site before and it is mostly US based but she does have a lot of good info, articles and interviews. 

Entropy - https://entropymag.org/category/where-to-submit/ - again mostly US based, but a huge resource.

Aerogramme Writer's Studio also have lots of useful resources likes lists of residencies you can attend  and awards you can apply for, mostly US based, but some international information as well - http://www.aerogrammestudio.com/category/news/.

Submittable's Discover search engine - https://manager.submittable.com/beta/discover - again, I've mentioned this before and it's turning out to be a good app. It's in beta stage, so they're welcoming feedback. You have to join Submittable to use it, but it's free and if you're submitting work regularly to magazines very useful and often a requirement. You also get a regular email with more information on calls and articles on writing.

Strangely enough I haven't had much cross-over with these sites, so I've managed to find so many that I want to submit to that I have a list for when poems are freed up by rejections. 

I'll try to update this page as I find new ones. I've had one acceptance this summer (I won't count the rejections), so feeling postive. Wishing you luck in finding homes for your writing as well. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Silence - After Mentoring

My mentoring session has ended and I have returned to regular writing life, on my own. I had gotten used to having someone to talk to about writing, to getting feedback on my poems and suggestions about where to submit and what opportunities to take advantage of. 

I've joined an online poetry group but it has faded into silence as well. People have busy lives and things will get busier as summer nears, but it's frustrating to comment on other submitted poems but to have yours receive views but no comments. 

I'm not writing as much as before. I've got two poems on a slow boil and submitted some poems to a few magazines this last week, but often I just open my writing folder and just tinker with a line or two and then go do something else.

It doesn't help that the weather is beautiful so I'm trying to get some work in the garden and my allotment, that I have fallen behind on my housework while the mentoring was going on, so need to give that a bit of attention. I also need to keep some form of social life ticking over before everyone leaves Helsinki for holidays. It's hard to fit writing into all of that and this is the last week of school here, so soon I will have to fit it in between entertaining the kids and our own holidays. 

Overall the mentoring was very helpful, the criticism on my poems was exactly what I needed to gain new insight on how my writing had progressed since coming to Finland. I have been able to edit my older poems and take a stronger focus on new ones. 

I was a bit disappointed at the end with the feedback on my collection overall. The point of the extended mentoring for me was to examine my proposed poetry collection. I asked when I first began submitting sections that as well as feedback on the individual poems I wanted suggestions on how it worked as a group and on its flow. When I asked these questions again in our last discussion session she seemed surprised by my questions. 

I left our conversation feeling less sure of my collection and uncertain how to approach any editing. Though this might just be my response to the lack of support now. I look at the collection and don't know what to do with it, whether to reorder it, leave it as is and trying submitting it to publishers anyway. If I reorder it into chapters or sections I'm not sure if it's too themey and exactly how to group them. It is vaguely grouped with similar poems together, but sometimes I dip in and out of a theme as it felt too chunky to have them all together. I don't want to waste my chance with publishers by sending out a less than 'as good as I can get it' collection. I don't know which way to jump. 

It might be as with my novels when I finish them that I have to set them aside and let them mature in my brain before I can really consider a final edit and submitting them. I hope so. Besides making rough notes on possible sections I've not looked at the book as a whole since my session finished, just tinkered with some final edits. It might be best to leave it until after the summer and look at it with refreshed eyes. But I've been waiting so long to finish it and send it out, I feel I shouldn't waste more time. 

So I'm sitting in my kitchen working, sending them out into the void of submissions, writing to a silent audience, waiting for responses. 

It might be a good time to switch back to fiction for a bit. 

Monday, 15 May 2017

Blog Self-Publishing

I recently received a lovely comment on my blog from American poet Sarah Russell and since then I've been following her blog where she publishes her own poetry and works by other authors. I've enjoyed the blog immensely and it got me wondering about publishing my own poetry on this blog. 

I wouldn't publish work in progress or poems that haven't already been published, but it might be an interesting way to air out old poems that haven't seen the light of day in decades. I have had pieces published since 1998 and many of my early poems were published in my collection back in 2007 (which is out of print, but can be picked up second hand or I can sell you a copy if interested), so they've been quiet since then.

But then I feel a bit weird because it's a bit like vanity publishing. I didn't start this blog to flog my work, though hopefully it will be an added bonus, but it wouldn't be a bad thing to pull the occasional poem out of the moth balls and talk a bit about my experience writing it or getting it published. 

I would of course give credit to the press or magazine that first published the work and I would have to look up the copyright rules as I've been out of publishing that long I have forgotten, but I think since I am the author the rights return to me after first publishing in magazines or journals. Poems from my collection would be different but as the publishing company has totally gone under, there's no one to really ask for republication rights, so I'm guessing it's not a bother. 

I wouldn't publish poems that haven't been previously published because that usually negates the possibility to be used again as publishing work online counts as a use of their First Publication Rights. Most magazines don't want previously published work, though there are some who do, so it's best to stick to poems that have appeared on magazines or online journals.

So on that note, I might as well be brave as I've had a house guest this last week and not had much time to write or think about what to do here. 

This poem was part of the first Hidden City pamphlet series, (Dancing Rabbit Publishing, Glasgow, 2006). The idea was to write about the unseen corners of Glasgow. In 2009 I was a part of the event at the Merchant City Festival that took the listeners to the hidden sites where the poets read their poems. 

My poem was about the small cemetary around the Glasgow Cathedal, tucked behind walls and the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. It started out as a touching moment about a long, but difficult friendship, but in 2015 I returned to Glasgow to say good-bye to my friend who was dying of cancer and I needed to say more about the place and the moment, so the second half has been added more recently. 

It was recently the anniversary of my friend's birthday, so it seems fitting to share this now.

Small Green Peace
For Carol

Reading the stones:  
one grave draws the eye,
a list of children each living
a few years longer than the one before.

The last had only thirty-nine years
to make his mark before he joined
the long line of his family.

A shower of white petals graces us
as you tell how
you found this silence as a child.

I wandered here on my arrival
through unfamiliar streets,
jet lag keeping me from sleep
as the city unfolded, embraced me.
Beneath the cathedral,
I watched the sky bleed
industrial orange to gray-green.

Years will pass and if we never meet again
in this quiet corner my words,
through letter or poem,
will chart the distances we have travelled.

Though you never move from this city
and I circle the globe, they will be the same.


Your final diagnosis
lingers between us,
raw and heavy.

You reveal the city
has removed the old stones,
cut down the blooming trees.

It matters
they tore apart
our past.

It doesn’t matter
because now you too
are gone,
your own carved mark
too short.

You left me in awe
of your truthful strength,
riding out the pain
but not beaten.

Keeping us all in check
if our faces got too long.

Petals drifting past your face
as we decided
in the midst of stony death
what was needed
was a pint and a chat
that would last all afternoon.

Thursday, 4 May 2017


I returned at the weekend from a short city break in Amsterdam. One of my goals while I was away, child-free, was to write as much as possible. 

Strangely enough, I found it quite difficult to find a focus for writing practices when I had hours in front of me. Finally, I could write about whatever I wanted for as long as I wanted and I struggled. Sometimes I'm better at being forced to write in a half hour. 

I wrote tons in my journal every day, made lots of notes, but I only started one poem based on an experience I had. I edited old work, worked on in-progress poems, but I didn't feel hit by inspiration to start new pieces. Even with the beauty of canals, tulips and tall houses all around me.

This didn't shock or bother me. I've often needed time to process experiences and ideas before I could write them. I have moved a lot in my life from country to country and alot of my writing is based around places I have lived or visited. For a long time I felt I could never write about a place while I lived in it. Which wasn't strictly true, but I wrote more about Greece years after I left it than I did when I was in the middle of the adventure. Once I lived in Scotland for 17 years that changed. I couldn't wait that long.

Sometimes we don't see a moment for what it is or we need time and space to analyse the importance of an event before we can start to shape it into a poem or other piece of writing. There are poems that come to you right away after something happens, others need to sink in and develop. 

I went to the Van Gogh museum while in Amsterdam. He's one of my favourite painters and being able to see so much of his work up close (with thousands of other people) was amazing. I knew beforehand I would write something about him or the paintings I saw. I knew while wandering around of at least one moment I would focus on for certain. A week later and I'm still skirting the edges of the poem. And the idea is changing. There might be two poems from the same moment: one the awe of what I saw, the other a more analytical poem delving deeper. I've made some notes, but it's still settling in my mind. Maybe they'll come together, maybe they'll never happen. It's early days.

I do worry that I will lose the raw emotion of the moment if I leave it too long. I've often felt this with going back to substantially rewrite pieces. It's hard to grab that lapsed energy and make the reader feel it months or years afterwards. Hopefully the skills are there to bring it back to the surface in the writing. 

Tips for processing and writing about events after the fact: take as many mental and physical notes as you can after an important event. I write regularly in my writing and everyday journals partially for this reason. Make a writing practice out of reliving a moment. Take pictures if you can. 

I realised I didn't take note of the name of the painting I want to write about, so I need to find that out, maybe not for the poem but for myself. Do some research, though sometimes it's better not to know too many of the details. 

I wrote a poem last year on an emotional response to an event. During the moment and afterwards while I was writing the poem I had all these questions about what happened, the people involved, the history behind it. I forced myself not to go to Google while I was writing. I wanted the emotion, the uncertainty to be real, without facts and explanations to clear things up  and I feel the poem is better for not knowing. When I felt it was solid enough, I researched and answered the niggling questions.

Don't be afraid to look to events in the past for your writing, don't worry if you can't find a way to immediately write about an important moment. Allow yourself time to process and play with ideas. If you make writing a habit and occasionally turn your writing focus to that event you might find the poem or story will come when you least expect it. 

Good luck.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Be Present

I said in my last post that I knew I wouldn't be able to write a poem a day for GloPoWriMo, but after this week I think I could surprise myself. I've pretty much completed 3 new poems. 

And it has to do with being present, being in place, ready to write every day or as often as you can. 

One of the benefits of doing writing practices every day is that like any skill the more you use it the easier it becomes and hopefully the better you get. If you make it a routine to pick up a pen or turn on your laptop at a regular time during the week then your mind becomes attuned to it. You start unconciously thinking of things to write before you sit down, you start to sculpt lines in your head. You cut through the dross of warm-ups faster

I've had 2 of the 3 news poems on my 'I want to write' list for ages, but making time to write everyday this week I was able to jump into ideas faster when I found time to sit down. My son's hour guitar lesson was just long enough to sit in a cafe with cake and tea and break the back of a short poem about cake - part of series I've been wanting to write about Finnish flavours for ages

The day before I spent half a page playing with a prompt from the NaPoWriMo site about writing a poem letter and then I felt warmed-up enough to start a poem about my daughter and language that I had previously made a page of notes on. The third poem was inspired by something I saw on a drive last week.

Practicing everyday means I am more focussed and ready to write when I sit down. I'm really enjoying the feeling, so hope I can keep it up over the next few months until school finishes and I have the kids every day. It will be harder to find time to write then. 

Here's two more poems to enjoy: Anna Akhmatova whose poems I discovered in university.

You Will Hear Thunder

You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.

That day in Moscow, it will all come true,
when, for the last time, I take my leave,
And hasten to the heights that I have longed for,
Leaving my shadow still to be with you. 

When You're Drunk, You're So Much Fun

When you’re drunk, you’re so much fun -
Your rambling tales make no sense.
The early fall arrived and hung
Bright yellow flags upon the elms. 

In the land of fraud and guile, 
We have strayed, and now, repent,
But, what are these fictitious smiles,
On our lips, so strangely bent?

Not happiness or peace of mind, 
A biting torment - we pursued…
I will not leave my friend behind, - 
So tender and so dissolute.