Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Getting Out of a Rut

Getting started writing again after the long Christmas break has been difficult; moving past all the admin I need to catch up with, organising the family, the gray weather and a general feeling of malaise and being unfocussed. I haven't been able to attend a writing group in ages because of illness, cancellation, house guests. All just excuses, however legitimate they may be.

It's easier to edit, to submit to magazines, to write this blog, to do organisational work. It all needs to be done, but for my own writing mental health I need to be putting new words on a blank page. I have the time, a new notebook waiting for me, two poems I need to finish, but I have no new ideas and no motivation.

What is your motivation? It's not always clear. Some writers require a goal to aim for: the next project, a deadline, a collection to finish. I have those. Some are pushed from behind: a need to say something, a character that demands to be heard, a poem ready to be born. This is how I ususally work, but I'm not feeling the pressure at the moment. So I need to step out of my normal routine to shake something new loose.

How do you find motivation when it's lacking? Writer's block is the grand, scary term often used. It can be a problem for some writers. Sometimes when you finish a piece, it's hard to get going again. I find that after I finish a draft of a novel, I've run out of energy to start something new. I do need some time to relax and reset my mind. I've reached that point with my poetry. I've basically completed all the poems I had planned, so am scrabbling around for new ideas. 

Even mid-project when the writing has been flowing well you can just stall. It can be your brain sabotaging your work by being overly self-critical or just anxious about what you're trying to say. Then you just need to ignore the voice of your internal critic and just keep writing. 

Sometimes the piece you're trying to write just isn't working and you need to take a step back to evaluate. You can let it simmer unheeded for a bit and work on something different, but if you leave it for too long it can be very difficult to get started again. You can also try turning it upside down and approaching it from a totally different angle. 

There are lots of writing exercises to help push past being stuck or writer's block, but it starts with putting those first words down. They can be gobblygook to begin with, just to grease the engine a bit. Scribble them on a piece of scrap so you can immediately throw them out so you're not burdened with the idea of them having to be perfect or even readable.

Write lists if you're not ready for full sentences yet. List your character's favourite places or their favourite music and then the next day pick one of those to write a simple scene with. Take that list of 'what I want to write' and bluntly write the synopsis for each one, five or ten sentences as if you were telling a friend what your next poem or story is going to be about.

Write about why you can't write. What's holding you back? Rant about the Blue Monday, gray January weather. Go off on the fact that you have a mountain of ironing to do or you haven't translated yet another medical report from Finnish. Tell how you've painted your character into a corner, that their actions aren't believable, that you've fallen out of love with them. Try and find solutions, even ones that are implausible and fun just to get you out of the rut. Have an angel pull your character from their conundrum and take them on a 'this is your life' type adventure. Write your suddenly boring character as if they've just arrived on the scene; someone exotic and mysterious. Get to know her again from scratch.

Play with words: write down ten verbs connected with one occupation (like mountain climbing: scramble, hoist, perch) and ten nouns connected with another (DIY: paint, hammer, drywall) and 10 adjectives from another (cooking: moist, rising, fried) put them together in grammatically corrected but crazy sentences and then try and turn them into a poem. Find 10 new words from a dictionary and use them in a writing practice.

Rewrite a poem or scene where you're stuck from a different character's point of view. Describe the event from the end first. Rewrite a poem by replacing every verb and adjective with its opposite.

Give yourself deadlines or word limits: a poem a week, 1500 new words by next writing group. Arrange writing dates with a friend to write new material and to share it afterwards. Schedule yourself strict writing time, no screens, no answering the phone. Pen and paper and an hour to write. Go someplace unusual and write as if you were taking snapshots of the place.

Think about what pushes or pulls your writing along. Sometimes revisiting old techniques work, other times you need to discover new ones. 

Good luck and wish me some too. Tomorrow I have scheduled writing time and will take one of my prompts books with me to see if I can reignite the spark. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Resolutions and 2017 Report

It's almost mid-January and I'm just getting around to posting a review of my writing year and to making resolutions. As usual they are pretty vague and extension to what I'm already doing in my writing: I want to write more, submit more and hopefully get published more.

In more detail: I have one poem to finish for my Scottish collection, then I will edit it and start seeking a publisher. I need probably another 10-15 poems for my Finnish collection to do the same. I still want a publisher for my first novel and hope to finish the rewriting of my second so I can look to editing it.

I also want to submit more work to magazines and journals. I have a routine in place for this, so that hopefully won't be too hard to keep up.

I'd also like to do some public performances this year. It's been a long time since I've read to an audience and while I loathe it and am not comfortable doing it, it's important when promoting your work, so I'd like to get back in the swing of it.

I'd like to consider getting back into teaching for next autumn. I'm not sure where or how, but there must be even a small audience out there interested in learning about creative writing in English here.

Stats Report for 2017

I didn't quite make my target of 100 rejections this year, but I submitted to 65 magazines and anthologies this year and made 12 book or chapter submissions to competitions or book publishers. I have also made 2 grant applications.

I have had 7 acceptances, 13 poems in total published. I also made the long-list for a first chapter competition. So that's 72 rejections for 2017.

On the writing side I have written 19 new poems and finished 9 poems that I had started in previous years. That is compared to 7 poems finished in total in 2016. I honestly think that's the most I've ever written in one year with 2003 coming close with 25 poems.

I also added thousands of words to my second novel, though I didn't keep track of how many.

It looks good when you break it down and it's one of the reasons I have been keeping track of these little stats. It gives me a little boost for the upcoming year. 

How did 2017 work out for you? Do you have plans in place for new year. I often make a list using the 'I want to write . . .' prompt, so I can see what poems I have in mind to write and what I need to finish. 

Welcome to 2018, may it be a prosperous one, full of beautiful words and plot turns enough to keep us writing. 

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Working Well with Others - Collaboration

Sometimes the opportunity comes up to work with other artists and all I can say is to jump at any chance presented to you. Working with other writers or even artists from other media is a great way to expand your repertoire, get your name further into the public domain and to put some spice in your work.

Over the years I've had various opportunities to work with other writers for readings, anthologies, workshops and other events, but I've really enjoyed branching out with artists from different art forms such as writing an improvised short play for a drama group, creating children's workshops with an electronic visual artist and a musician. Usually I'm asked to respond to an work of art and write a poem inspired by it and to give poems for an artist to respond to.

This is what the editor Jenny O'Grady at The Light Ekphrastic online journal has recently asked me to do. She's accepted a few of my poems and then paired me with a visual artist. We've shared our work and will create a new piece inspired by the each other's work. After looking at the pieces by the artist I've already started sketching out ideas for a new poem. I'm looking to see what she comes up with as well. Our work will be published later in the spring and I will include a link to it. 

It gives me a boost of inspiriation to work with other artists, especially if you can do it in person and actually spend time discussing art, the project and various subjects. Writers and artists usually work too much in isolation, it is so good to connect even for short periods which is why I push for writers to attend writing groups, readings and other events. 

On a related note, I've joined the 2018 Poetry Bloggers Revival Tour, a conversation among poet bloggers to try and post weekly in 2018. Probably easier said than done, but I'm hoping it will push myself in all areas of my writing to write more. Check out the links on the post above to find some new poets to read and follow. Join the conversation. 

Happy 2018. I hope it's a creative and fruitful year for you. 

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.

Research:
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.