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 - - 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 - - especially useful for Scottish writers, but also for UK listings. 

Poetry Ireland's Opportunities  for Writers - - a focus on Irish publishing.

Literary Mama - - useful for writing about being a mother, but also covers other categories. Mostly US based. 

Trish Hopkinson - - 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 - - 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 -

Submittable's Discover search engine - - 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.