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.

  
Epilogue

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

Processing

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.