Ditch the Word Count

There are plenty of examples of (bad) advice to writers that state something along the lines of “write 1000 words per day” or “I write 2000 words a day” or worse, “if you’re not prepared to get up an hour early and write 1000 words, you’ll never be a writer.” It’s all useless advice to a poet where the aim is to use the best words in the best order as succinctly as possible. But it’s also useless advice to prose writers whether you’re writing non-fiction or fiction. Here’s why:

  • 500 edited words of publishable standard are better than 2000 words of free writing; quality beats quantity.
  • The pressure of a useless target is not going to make you a better writer. Find a more productive target such as half a dozen poems of publishable standard by the end of the month or polish a piece of flash fiction to meet a competition deadline (even if you decide not to enter) or get that review I promised written.
  • Some writers don’t write in regular daily amounts. Some are writing around a day job and/or family commitments. Some will write in a concentrated burst over a few weeks rather than daily.
  • Getting up early doesn’t work if you’re a night owl or if you have caring responsibilities because it assumes you can get to bed early enough to give yourself enough sleep: skipping sleep will not make you a good writer.
  • Similarly, staying up late doesn’t help larks. Best to try to organise you day to fit in writing when you write best.
  • Some with disabilities need to prioritise self-care. Stretching yourself to reach an unobtainable target will be counter productive. Do as much or as little as you can and don’t feel guilty.
  • On rare occasions, the laundry is more urgent than writing.
  • It’s natural to compare yourself to others, particularly during NaPoWriMo or NaNoWriMo ((inter)National Poetry/Novel Writing Month), but make sure your comparisons are productive ones rather than destructive ones. I submitted more poems this year than last year is good. I haven’t written as much as poet A is bad: you weren’t meant to write as much as poet A.
  • Remember too, people tend to post good news on social media. They’re going to tell you about the days they achieved their target, not the days when they didn’t.
  • Do the writers who say “write x number of words a day” actually do so? If they do, are those words any good?

The main reason it is lousy advice is that writing, especially creative writing, is not about getting words into a document. The mechanics of typing out x number of words can be done by a transcription service or software or a bunch of monkeys. That’s when word or line counts are useful, it ensures poems are short enough to publish in magazines, it differentiates between a short story and a novel, it helps editors ensure that they’re not publishing haiku alongside epic poems or flash alongside a novella. Typing is not writing.

Writing is the reading, thoughts, dreams, research that happens before typing starts.

It might happen on your commute, during your walk, whilst you’re out running or swimming. It might be the thing that woke you up so you had to scrabble for a notebook or phone to capture the idea before it was lost. It might be the notes you scribbled between appointments. That compelling image you snapped. An overheard fragment of conversation. A phrase that became an earworm. The idea that linked to another idea that became lines of a poem or a scene in a story. The things you can’t measure in word counts.


 

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“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” Christopher Hopkins (Clare Songbirds Publishing) – poetry review

The Shape of a Tulip Bird Christopher Hopkins book cover“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” is a poetry collection that explores bereavement stemming from a miscarriage which led to a relationship breaking down and how grief gets carried with us. However, it’s not a gloomy, self-pitying collection. From the opening poem, “There’s a Fist Where the Heart Should be”

“The grain in the shape of a bay
I remember.
Searching for a flicker
in the static flesh.”

This is suggestive of an image on an ultrasound and the poem ends,

“I have an ocean of love for you
but there is no shelter on the ocean,

there’ll be no shelter from this.
You’ll say,
your body haunts you.
It haunts us both.
The tiniest muscle gave out
and broke us.”

Few relationships survive the loss of a child. The clarity and frankness of the last two lines is indicative of news that hasn’t yet sunk in or been processed. The emotional impact is a wave in the far reaches of the bay on its way to the shore. Ending the poem at that point gives space for a reader to imagine the coming devastation.

The collection’s title is an odd one: there is no tulip bird, but there are varieties of tulips named after birds which are generally lack the neat, elegant pleats of petals and have ruffled edges like the ragged mess of a wind-ruffled wing, making the flower look like a failed nest. In the title poem,

“I tasted that happy madness of love,
the flame-fretted ache,
that gentle perfection of worry
only
a mother can make.
I felt the electric join
of womb to soul,
head to heal.”

This nest too failed, but the baby was much-desired. The bounce in the rhythm of the opening two quoted lines, achieved through double consonants, gives way to the slower rhythm of the longer vowels after the pivotal “only”. This reflects the mood change from the initial joy of pregnancy to worries and what ifs. The loss is further described in “My Heart is a Failed City”, “This den of heaven’s gravity/ is a physical hole of absence.” In seeking solace from the baby’s potential grandmother, in “Inside the Tear”, a mother’s “wing was too stretched and hollow/ and the light passed right through it” when she offers one of those stock phrases suggesting an early loss is better than a later one. The mood moves to acceptance in “My Language Has Run Out of Broken Bones”, “I have asked myself if I gave love too easy,/ then pinched myself heard. To think how much/ I love this speck, this wonderful nothing.”

A note of hope surfaces in “Love / West / Atlantic”,

“The sun break is still faint.
A star un-effecting.
No rays of worth
have yet reached out
to rub a little heat
into the lavender rocks,
stir the flower heads awake,
less the light of cornsilk,
which carries these
delicate birds.”

It’s still cold, but the narrator is beginning to see beauty and birds take flight. The image of the speck from “My Language Has Run Out of Broken Bones,” is picked up again in the last poem “White Feather” “and each star speck/ is a father’s peck/ on a daughter’s head.”

“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” is a gentle, textured exploration of bereavement. It leaves self-pity out as the poems move from acceptance through heartbreak and emerge on notes of hope. Christopher Hopkins uses pared down language that gives readers chance to absorb and engage with the poems. The bird motif suggests the journey is ongoing and, although loss maybe the flipside to love, it is possible to let the buoyancy of the thermals direct the bereft back to life.

“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” is available from Clare Songbirds.


 

“Upturned Earth” Karen Jennings (Holland Park Press) – book review

Karen Jennings Upturned Earth book cover“Upturned Earth” is set in South Africa’s Namaqualand in the winter of 1886. A young man, William Hull, travels from Cape Town to Springbokfontein to take up his position of magistrate. It’s not just his seasickness that colours his view of the town, mostly black with slag, and slums where the miners sleep. Most miners are on their own, some with families elsewhere, but some have wives and children who also work at the Okiep mine owned by the Cape Copper Mining Company (CCMC). Townsend, the mine’s superintendent, tells Hull he will do as he’s told. Over a dinner, rich with imported food, Hull meets Townsend’s two daughters. One well-mannered who values appearances and manages to put fashion ahead of function at a funeral where she fails to notice how inappropriate her costume is. Her sister, the other daughter, is a young widow with a son who chooses to dress in mourning even though her elderly husband’s death was not unexpected and it was not a marriage based on love.

Hull settles into the magistrate’s residence where the jailer inserts himself as a valet, butler and cook to Hull. The jailer takes Hull on a tour of the jail cells. Hull suspects he’s not been shown everything, but youth and naivety prevent him from insisting on seeing all. The cases before Hull are mainly concerned with drunken brawls and petty theft. Hull also meets the local Dr Fox who is paid by the Cape Copper Mining Company to attend injured miners as well as inspect the prisoners. Dr Fox’s reports on the prisoners’ well-being lead Hull to think he was being over-suspicious on the tour of the jail cells. In his spare time, Hull starts cataloguing and collecting specimens of local plants, insects and small animals such as frogs. His position separates him from the local mining community who view him as being in the pocket of the CCMC.

In parallel to Hull’s journey, Molefi Noki, travels back to Okiep from his village in the Idutywa Reserve, leaving behind his heavily pregnant wife. He joins the other miners, a mix of nationalities: white men, who have emigrated, the original black population and the Baster, descendants of children of Dutch men and native women, led by a preacher, Adam Waterboer. Noki searches for his brother, Anele, who he discovers has been jailed after a drunken brawl by Hull’s predecessor. Noki, not trusting a magistrate in CCMC’s pay, tries to bribe another prisoner for news of Anele, but the jailer is alerted to the disturbance and Noki has to leave.

When there’s a partial collapse in one of the mining tunnels, Noki is part of a group instructed to dig the collapsed shaft out. When the miners point out that the collapse happened because of insufficient supports, they are instructed to continue anyway. The supports have been further weakened by days of non-stop rain which has left some of the tunnels water-logged. The miners’ discontent and weakened shaft supports set in motion an avalanche of events that bring the miners into conflict with the CCMC with devastating, tragic consequences.

In the confusion of the conflict, Hull finally inspects the whole jail and discovers that while white prisoners have been treated reasonably, black prisoners have been maltreated. He arranges for the maltreated prisoners to be taken to the hospital, a dilapidated building run by a matron who pulls in miners’ wives to assist when needed, under guard and sacks the jailer. For once, Hull doesn’t back down in the face of vicious protest. In interviewing the maltreated prisoners, Hull discovers what happened to Noki’s brother Anele and that the jailer had been working in collusion with Townsend. Hull rages against his naivety and leaves the magistrate’s residence, but not the post. He faces a choice, does he stay and take on the might of the CCMC or does he run away?

Karen Jennings has extensively researched the historical details and successfully brings to life the contrasts between the poverty of the miners and wealth of mine owners, the uneasy atmosphere in the mining town of shacks where men group in tribes and there’s little to do but work and drink. Most of the men are separated from family support networks and came to mine either because they needed to support distant families or because no other work was available. The CCMC did exist, some of the characters in “Upturned Earth” are based on historical records and accounts but the events are fictional.

The characters are credible. Noki is driven to support his family, which limits his ability to knock back against the conditions he works under. His fellow miners are trapped in similar circumstances. Townsend, cuts costs and safety to maximise profits for his luxury lifestyle, using his wealth to control and exploit others. His younger daughter doesn’t question her luxuries and believes herself to be acting with charity when she donates food parcels to miners who only have one set of ragged clothes and have to cook on damp firewood. The widowed daughter knows her father’s working practices are unsafe, which led her to escape into marriage but her husband’s death has forced her back into a family she regards as a trap. Hull’s naivety initially feels like a plot device: his illness and malnutrition from violent seasickness would have been enough for him not to ask too many questions or make a full inspection of the jail on his arrival. However, his awakening and rage at the situation he blindly allowed himself to be caught in, are both credible and create a moral struggle, which brings about a complete change in attitude.

“Upturned Earth” brings to life the history of a miners’ conflict in 1886, filling in the characters and details from historical documents and creating credible fictional characters to produce a satisfying story. Karen Jennings shows characters struggling to overcome their circumstances. Although “Upturned Earth” is a historical novel, its concerns and themes of struggles against poverty and the widening gap between the wealthy and poor, have contemporary relevance.

“Upturned Earth” is available from Holland Park Press.


 

“To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale]” Kate Garrett (Animal Heart Press) – poetry review

Kate Garrett To Feed My Woodland Bones cover imageA changeling is a substituted baby who replaces a wanted child. The substitute often considered to be ugly or of ugly temperament and, in more ignorant times, the swap was blamed on fairy folk. It was a family’s way of explaining a rebellious child, often the scapegoat, to deflect attention from inadequate parenting skills. Kate Garrett’s poem “Changeling” starts,

“My mother sings, mucking out the barn.
The melody reaches me, but
she can’t see her daughter.”

If the daughter is close enough to hear her mother’s singing, she is close enough to be seen. The mother is too self-involved in her chores to check on her daughter. A nine-year-old doesn’t need close supervision but still needs a mother’s reassurance. The mother doesn’t seek to involve the daughter in the chore, doesn’t teach through sharing how to look after the stabled animals. A mare nudges her foal,

“My mother stops to gaze at them.
I stand alone, absently plaiting grass with hay.

‘I love you, but I do not like you.’
I turn away in the space between
and laugh at the empty pasture.”

The mother does not take the hint. The human daughter is left alone to turn away. Her laugh has no audience. Whilst woodland folk tales are alluded to, there is nothing twee or sentimental in these poems. Sadly the daughter doesn’t just suffer emotional, nurturing neglect, in “An elf turns inside out for the dragon”

“my disordered eating is put on backwards
.          [she makes it known
.          I am not allowed to be hungry, so
.          I learned to make a bag of pretzels last three days
.          I shapeshift, deerlike in so many ways —
.          licking salt to feed my woodland bones]

my disordered eating is an unpopular opinion
.          [she keeps charts of her losses
.          too busy cave-painting to put dinner
.          down for me / pets and babies / we are
.          the same / her slender knick-knacks
.          embryonic castaways / servants on display]

and one day, far from our cave, in the year-bend future
I am comfortable, with five thriving children

yet my own hunger squeaks unheard
because there is always a more pressing thing to be than fed”

The daughter who learns not to be hungry becomes the mother who neglects to feed herself to ensure her own children never go hungry, over-compensating for the neglect she suffered. Ironically it’s a sign of hope. It takes strength to break the cycle of abuse and determination not to fall into learnt patterns of being. The earlier, changeling-based poems do not mention a father. The self-focused, ignoring mother may have proved too self-absorbed. The changeling/elf, however, is not alone. Celebrating a relationship in “Pixie-led”,

“in the bottom of the glass this encounter is something he saw in a dream // in the bottom of the glass the sediment forms a crescent moon and he says he sees it clearly too // there is no mist over the moon and he hands me a ring, silver knotted around a sliver of aurora // a sliver of aurora like me, a being gemstone in the ring I can’t see the future // there is no mist over the aurora but we’re too far south // in the bottom of the glass I see my love in the rising mist around a crescent moon and I tell him yes.”

So fitting that the last word of the last poem is “yes”, the book ends on a triumphant note. The first phrase was “breaking hexes”. The changeling/elf has broken her mother’s enchantment and built a successful family of her own.

Each poem is capable of standing on its own. Grouped together, they create a cumulative narrative of a child made to believe she was a changeling, weaving fairy tales for comfort and then the struggle to overcome lessons learnt as a child to become the mother she’d wanted, finding home with someone willing to understand her misfit ways. The poems avoid self-pity and woe. In “To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale]” Kate Garrett has fused woodland myth with reality into a narrative plait of trauma overcome, ending on a positive note.

“To Feed My Woodland Bones [A Changeling’s Tale]” by Kate Garrett” is available from Animal Heart Press.

Your Characters are not Tourist Brochures

A sizeable portion of unpublished stories I’ve been reading recently involve their characters travelling somewhere they’ve never visited before. In a couple of cases, this was due to relocation, but in most the characters were tourists. Most of these stories bored me, even when the characters were travelling to places I had never seen so the boredom wasn’t down to familiarity. Usually a tourist visiting a place you’re familiar with sees it with a fresh set of eyes or queries something you’ve taken for granted. That was the problem, none of these travelling characters were seeing their scenery with fresh eyes. I was bored because I felt as if I was reading a tourist brochure and it made me query why I was reading the story.

How do writers avoid their characters sounding like tourist brochures?

Why is your character making this journey?

If they are relocating, are they anxious about it or keen to leave their current location behind? If they’re anxious, they will notice signs of authority such as police uniforms, street signposts, fire escapes, narrow alleyways, how crowded/empty the streets are. If optimistic, they’ll notice open spaces, bars and cafes, places they’ll want to visit.

If it’s a holiday or business trip, how prepared are they? Do they see it as a break, change to recharge, or is it a source of anxiety? Is your character the type to triple check they’ve packed their passport, have a packed itinerary with no chance of spare time or have already checked out the best locations for Instagram photos before they get there? Or is your character more likely to sling a few outfits in a weekend bag and plan to figure out their plan when they get there?

Are they travelling alone?

If so, did they organise the trip themselves or did someone else organise it for them? Do they spent the journey picturing themselves at their destination or worrying about what they’ve left behind?

If not, how do they feel about their travelling companions? If a business trip, are their fellow travellers talking about business non-stop or do they see it as a break and chance to relax? If with family members, how responsible for the others does your character feel? Is your character the one checking timetables, making sure everyone sits near each other and is comfortable? Or does someone else in the group do this, giving your character time to daydream?

Do you need to include the journey at all?

If the journey’s boring and uneventful, skip it. If disaster strikes or your character has an epiphany, include it.

When your character arrives

Are they due to meet someone and does that someone turn up on time with a welcome and reassurance or are they late and hostile? Does your character want to sight-see straightaway or head to a hotel and unpack? Is the place they’re staying better or worse than they expected? A hotel room might be gloomy or bright and airy, does it match or contrast with your character’s mood?

Sightseeing

Character A in story A visits attraction 1, attraction 2 and attraction 3. They take some photos, pick the best to upload to social media, take a break for a coffee and then visit attraction 4. Next day they do the same, except they visit attraction 5, attraction 6 and attraction 7, saving attraction 8, attraction 9 and attraction 10 for the day after. They give as much insight into what they’re seeing as a tourist information brochure. The visits go smoothly and nothing untoward happens. Nothing dramatic happens until they visit attraction 11.

Character B in story B goes to visit attraction 1, supposedly the most popular tourist attraction, but finds it closed for refurbishment. They check their schedule and decide to move on to attraction 2, figuring they can stay longer and move on to attraction 3 at the scheduled time. At attraction 2, there’s a huge crowd and they can’t get close enough to the attraction to get a good look. When they push their way through the crowd, the attraction’s smaller then they thought it would be and the shadows make it impossible to get a decent photo. They push their way back out of the crowd and get to the bus stop to move on to attraction 3 only find their wallet’s been stolen. They slump to the kerb. Not speaking the local language, they see no point in reporting the theft. Storm clouds gather.

Character C in story C picks attraction 1 because of their interest in the artifacts/ history of the attraction and finds it exceeds their expectations, moreover they meet someone who seems interested in them and agrees to a dinner date. Their date then tells them an amusing story not in the guidebooks and offers to show them the real treasures of the place, taking them off the beaten tourist paths. Not only do they learn more about the place then they would have done through an official guide, they learn even more about their date. Character C hurries back to their hotel, eager to ensure they look their best and carry on their earlier conversation. By the end of the date, they decide that love at first sight really is a thing.

Which story would you read and why?

I bet none of you chose story A or at least you’d have skipped the sightseeing episodes in the hope that something really did happen at attraction 11.

What’s missing from story A (at least in the first 10 attractions) is the character. We don’t know their motivations for picking the sites they visit, we don’t know how they feel or what they observe at those attractions and they’re doing typical tourist actions. Moreover, the visits aren’t moving the plot on or laying foundations for future drama. Not readers would bother sticking around to find out what happens at attraction 11.

In stories where the character relocates, some writers chose to start with the main character in their original location, explain the need for relocation, describe the journey (often boring unless something happens that’s relevant to the story) and have their character arrive, often using bland observations so readers aren’t seeing the journey though the character’s eyes. Of course the story actually starts at the point of relocation so the explanation about the need for relocation is backstory and the writer’s started in the wrong place. An error they’ve compounded by making the journey boring and lacking in insight.


 

Ideal Writing Conditions

“Do your best with what you’ve got”
Toni Morrison 18 February 1931 – 5 August 2019

What are your ideal writing conditions?

A large desk with space not only to write but to hold stacks of notes, reference books and plans with a whiteboard for temporary notes? Or a small desk, just room for a laptop, and no distractions.

Do you have a window with view with an appealing landscape or a windowless room so the only thing you can focus on is your screen? Does your ideal room have bookcases and a couch so you can take a break and read? Or a daybed for daydreaming? Or a stationary cycle or treadmill so you can use a burst of exercise to refresh? A coffee machine permanently bubbling away or poi pourri strategically scattered with scents to motivate?

Do you have internet access so you can quickly research on the go or do you block social media? Do you have music on or write in relative silence? Or are you the type of writer who prefers to sit in a cafe, surrounded by a buzz of people?

Do you have an optimum routine: perhaps some exercise in the morning and then a solid block of time to write or do you prefer to write first and take long walks in the afternoon? Do you do all your research and plot out your writing before you begin or do you research as you go?

Are you the sort content to write in isolation, only sharing work once it’s thoroughly published or do you want to be close to beta-readers for quick feedback or to discuss a knotty problem in line two or whether your current sonnet needs to rhyme or not?

Do you write first drafts with a specific brand of pen in a specific brand of notebook or scribble on whatever’s to hand? Do you prefer to draft on a phone or laptop? Do you have to create a certain ambience to write?

Who provides your meals and picks up the household chores?

Sorry, reality intruded there, didn’t it?

Very few writers get to write in their ideal conditions. For most of us, life really does intrude and we have to drop the idea of creating a specific set of conditions to write and making do with the conditions on offer. That means figuring out when the best time to write is and, as far as possible, arranging a routine around it. It might not be a separate room but a corner in a lounge or a favourite spot in a cafe or library if home contains too many distractions. It might be creating a short routine, a metaphorical sharpening of a pencil, to make a buffer between a day job and writing or between family demands and the need to re-enter a manuscript’s world.

It means moving away from the idea that there are ideal conditions to write and creating conditions to write in. It takes discipline and desire.

“Haunted by Cycles of Return” edited by Elsa Hammond (SciPo)

Haunted by Cycles of Return poems about climate change book coverThe 2018 SciPo Poetry Competition focused on climate change and this pamphlet of 18 poems, includes the winning and commended poems along with poems from guest poets Carrie Etter and Philip Gross. The competition has two categories: adult and under 18s, both judged by Jayne Draycott.

France-Anne King’s “Home Thoughts from the Red Planet”, which gives the pamphlet its title, starts “It was considered weakness to look back” and continues,

“A man described a wheat fields ripening under sun,
the weight and sea-sway of wind-pulled crops.
A woman, haunted by cycles of return, explained
the pattern play of swallows in an autumn sky;
how they forage on the wing, the skim and swoop
of cobalt feathers across the surface of a lake.”

Most compelling are memories of the various shades of blue. The poet doesn’t spell out why and this isn’t a blue pill/red pill set up. Mars, the red planet, has no water. The displaced people remember the various shades of blue because water means survival. “Home Thoughts from the Red Planet” is a subtle poem that makes it point through presenting what readers take for granted as memory, asking them to think about the effects of climate change if wheat fields (food) and swallows (barometers of climate as they migrate from Africa to cooler weather) become nostalgia. It was first prize-winner in the adult competition. Lesley Saunders took second prize, Sue Wood and Chris Pools were joint third.

Imogen Phillips’ “The Hunted” imagines mass extinction already underway,

“Now the antelope’s bones lie
Buried in long forgotten dust.
The water’s edge, just drops of my imagination,
Listing the missing treasures of my world.”

The long vowel sounds of the first two lines slow the rhythm, echoing the sense of regret: the antelope isn’t just dead, but forgotten. The second two lines build cumulative “s” sounds, creating a soft susurrus adding to the sense of shame and loss. The poem ends, “I lie down// One day closer to extinction…” The ellipsis could be ambiguous, either the sense of resignation towards the inevitable or a hint there’s time to stop this. It was first-prize winner in the under 18s category. Daisy Stillborn and Abigail Hawkesworth took second and third prizes respectively.

The theme of blue is picked up in Carrie Etter’s “Karner Blue”, a butterfly,

“Because Nabokov named it.
Because its collection is criminal.
Because it lives in black oak savannahs and pine barrens.
Because it once produced landlocked seas.
Because it has declined ninety per cent in fifteen years.
Because it is.”

Butterflies are short-lived and fragile but also, like most insects, a vital part of the ecosystem. Despite its decline, it clings on. The poem also hints at how human action in avoiding unnecessary killing and not destroying habits can arrest the devastating effects of deforestation and potentially restore populations.

Philip Gross’ “Goners” explores a young child uncertain of language saying, “I’m goning”,

“The water in the wave
goes nowhere, after all.

Like the mob-handed willow
and ash in the garden, plotting spring’s
sweet insurrections, while they can

:goners, all. Listen: the old
song, love song, hissing in the cracked
and wonky record’s grain

Play it. Play it again.”

Although the tone is mournful, it’s final line suggests a note hope if humans can learn to listen again and fall back in love with nature and its cycle of seasons.

Sadly the topics explored in “Haunted by Cycles of Return” are even more relevant than they were last year. Many poems about the climate crisis are good at describing what will be lost and expressions of regret but do little more than elegant hand-wringing and the addition of one more voice to an echo chamber of hopelessness. To their credit, the poems in “Haunted by Cycles of Return” do sound a note of hope and a sense that extinction is not inevitable, alternative paths can still be found, but humans must change their habits.

“Haunted by Cycles of Return” is available from SciPo, St Hilda’s College Oxford.