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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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.

Creating Time to Write isn’t Selfish

Women’s time has been interrupted and fragmented throughout history, the rhythms of their days circumscribed by the sisyphean tasks of housework, childcare and kin work – keeping family and community ties strong. If what it takes to create are long stretches of uninterrupted, concentrated time, time you can choose to do with as you will, time that you can control, that’s something women have never had the luxury to expect, at least not without getting slammed for unseemly selfishness.

Quote above from The Guardian.

It takes a determined effort to be writer and a mother, especially if you also have to work (freelance or a regular job). Nurseries, schools and childminders still default to contacting the mother if there’s a problem: fathers are only considered if the mother is unavailable. Children sleep but not consistently and not always when it’s convenient to write. Older children may be happier to watch something/read/draw independently but still want a parent nearby or will interrupt when the programme’s finished/the book’s finished/a crayon snaps. Getting up early might work if children sleep in until 8am; not so doable if they’re still waking at 5am. Writing late at night’s fine if you’re an owl, but doesn’t work if you’re a lark or the day proved exhausting.

Not all mothers have access to a nearby, supportive network of friends and/or family who can make up the childcare gaps and that impacts on writing time. Many fathers still see their partners as household managers, simply because she’s a mother, even if she also has another job, and fail to appreciate how absorbing that role is. Sometimes it’s not possible to share parental duties with a partner. Every mother knows it’s impossible to write while being constantly interrupted, re-writing and re-organising mental to-do lists, remembering when games kit is required, when school friends’ birthdays are, friends’ food allergies, finding creative things to do because it’s raining again or because you really cannot face “Peppa Pig” for the 121st time.

How you do combine a selfless activity (mothering) with a selfish one (writing)?

  • Don’t see it as selfish. If you’re a writer, you need to write and that means carving out time to write.
  • Don’t get discouraged by a bad day. You might find today only had 20 minutes available so make the most of it and don’t set an unachievable goal. Setting daily goals might not be doable but weekly ones might allow for fluctuations in time.
  • Train others not to interrupt. Don’t answer the phone if it goes during your writing time and the call isn’t urgent. Don’t answer the door to unsolicited callers.
  • Encourage family/friends to make appointments rather than turning up at their convenience and expecting you to be available. If they don’t, treat them as unsolicited callers (they wouldn’t turn up at a work place so they shouldn’t turn up when you’re working).
  • Don’t let those close to you persuade you your writing is “only a hobby”. If writing is important to you value it and prioritise it.
  • Procrastinate usefully; it’s amazing how many press releases I’ve written because I’ve been putting off a review or how many reviews were written because I was putting off a poem or how many laundry items get ironed while I’m working out a tricky plot point or how many stories have been drafted while I’m gardening (if I didn’t procrastinate, the gardening would not get done at all).
  • Learn to write on whatever’s to hand. We’re all guilty of preferring to write longhand in notebooks or to type straight onto a laptop, but mobile phones or scraps of paper are just as useful for first drafts or scribbling down an idea.
  • Create a writing base: need not be a desk or room of your own but a stack of letter trays on a sideboard or a kitchen table drawer where you can quickly set up a writing space and keep notes/research for your current project in one place.
  • Be adaptable: you may think you need a long chunk of time to write a novel or produce a pamphlet-length sequence of poems, but it’s possible to work a chapter at time or a poem at a time. A chapter, with a little editing, might work as a stand alone story. Each part in a sequence might work as a stand alone poem. These become pieces that could be published while you’re still working on the next section.
  • Consider reviewing – it’s a good way of combining reading with study and if you get your reviews published, you’ll have something to show for your work.
  • Children copy what they see. Happy mother = happy children. Miserable mother = miserable children.
  • You’re not just a mother. Your children need to see you combine the roles you have so they see mother is not just mother. You also need to write: frustrating part of your identity doesn’t work. Writing will re-energise you.

 

Instapoetry – is the bubble about to burst?

Extract from Emma Lee's poem A Peacock's Display, The sun shone on St Basils this morning. This evening I'll be in St Petersburg in a hotel lobby rolling my eyes as a human peacock says he has a yacht and gives me his room number.

Extract from my poem A Peacock’s Display published in Foreign Literary Journal https://foreignlit.com/

Instapoets, who post their usually short poems often on an accompanying image, account for more than 12% of the £12 million poetry book market in the UK according to Neilsen BookScan. That doesn’t seem like a huge portion, however, with most book stores offering a poor poetry selection, poetry sales generally happen at readings with poets expected to get heavily involved in promoting their book(s). Poets have a strong incentive to find ways to get their poems in front of readers. Is Instagram a genuine medium or is its bubble about to burst?

Most are aware of Rupi Kaur’s story: the writer who posted her work on Instagram, gained and kept followers and got a book deal with Simon & Schuster – not a notable poetry publisher. S A Leavesley (Sarah James), poet and a founding editor at V. Press, has written several articles about her photo-poetry. As a reviewer, I’ve seen a slight increase in the number of poetry books with illustrations and I’ve had to consider whether the illustrations enhance or detract from the poems as part of my review. I’m not considering quality as part of this article: self-published poems on one platform are no different from self-published poems in other media; the occasional fleck of genuine gold amongst a lot of pyrite.

One of the key advantages of instapoems is the instant feedback. A poet posts and gets likes and comments directly from readers within minutes. A poet giving a reading also gets instant feedback from the audience but the audience doesn’t get to see the layout of the poem so the feedback can say more about the performance than the poem. Some online magazines allow readers’ comments but there’s a gatekeeping editor who gets to choose which poems are published.

Instagram allows a poet to directly engage with readers and find readers who wouldn’t pick up a poetry book or go to a reading. A popular instapoet can acquire millions more followers than poetry magazines. More followers creates pressure to produce more instapoems since followers and algorithms favour new content and it takes discipline to manage followers’ expectations without losing them and dropping popularity status. Newer poets can copy the tried and tested routes of established insapoets and build their own platforms of readers.

Who needs a publisher when they’ve thousands of followers? Why go through the angst of submitting work to editors and the disappointment of rejections when a poet can post directly for readers’ attention? No poet earns enough to live on through publishing their poems in whatever medium. Most income for poets comes from readings or teaching, not publishing.

However, instapoets are vulnerable to Instagram’s support. When you’re playing in someone else’s sandpit, they get to set the rules. When you’re playing for free, you don’t have any leverage. Instagram want users to have followers and want users to have social engagement, to draw advertising, as well as users who are going to pay for promotions because running a social media platform isn’t free.

Instagram fairly recently changed its algorithm so it prioritises posts with user engagement, not necessarily showing posts in chronological order. That means, for instapoets, that followers may not see new poems but keep seeing older posts with more comments. Instapoets are finding their audience is falling as a result.

To counter this, poets can promote their posts, which then mostly appear to readers already following the poet rather than potential new readers, and that feels close to paying to be published. It also has an impact on publishers’ interest since publishers base their decisions on the number of followers. Those with established followers may just take the hit of paying for promoted posts. Those with 1 million or more followers often have their own range of merchandise to subsidise and promote their original Instagram posts. Poets new to Instagram face a long road of persistence to promote themselves and gain followers. Instagram is behaving like a publisher who prioritises their duty to book buyers and readers over a duty to writers. That’s where instapoets come unstuck because Instagram isn’t obliged to tweak their algorithm to favour instapoets’ interests.

Instapoets’ vulnerability is not Instagram’s fault. Many instapoets created their own vulnerability by becoming reliant on one platform. Those who survive algorithm tweaks will be those who saw Instagram as one of several possible platforms and built an audience through publishing and readings alongside publishing on Instagram or monetised their instapoetry with merchandise. Those whose sole route to a readership was Instagram will fall by the wayside.

Poets need to be alert to new opportunities, but also need to be alert to vulnerabilities. Social media’s great, but if you only publish on social media, you are vulnerable to businesses whose priority is profit, not poetry.

TL;DR: always have a Plan B.

#StoryCities #Market image shows woman in red jacket in front of a market stall. Quote in image, Tomorrow she might be back. The red jacket swapped for a beige trench coat.

Quote from flash fiction “The City’s Heartbeat” in Story Cities from Arachne Press.


 

To Read or Not to Read

Reviews, that is. All writers should be reading. I’m biased but I thoroughly recommend reading reviews too. However, should authors read reviews of their own work?

Yes, because

  • A good reviewer will pinpoint strengths and weaknesses whilst remaining respect and constructive to what the author was trying to achieve
  • Reviews can be useful sources for marketing blurb
  • Reviews can be an ego boost or at least a fairly permanent record that an author’s book was read at least once
  • A review may detect a trend or unintended consequence, in a good way, that an author wasn’t aware of in writing and editing their book.

No, because

  • A reviewer may take their role as critic too literally and not say anything positive
  • A reviewer may not be the author’s target market so may not understand the book.
  • Although that’s not a bad thing – the book was not intended for this particular reviewer – it feels like a negative
  • An author’s ego can take a battering
  • Unintended consequences identified by a reviewer may undermine what the author was trying to achieve
  • If an author struggles to separate themselves from their work, any negative comment may feel like a personal attack if when the reviewer only commented on the work. A personal attack that insults the author as a person and is not focused on the book is not a review.

Reading reviews of your own work is an individual choice. There’s no right or wrong answer, only the answer that’s right for you. I recommend writers find their own community, a writers’ group (on or off line), a mentor, an editor, a workshop, who can provide feedback and constructive criticism before publication who can take the sting out of reviewers’ comments, especially if carpingly critical or a reader is using a review as a platform to complain about the writer’s work rather than engage with it.

Should a reviewer tag an author when sharing a review on social media?

Some authors have asked on social media not to be tagged in bad reviews. But what is a ‘bad review’? A badly written one? A negative one? Is a review where the reviewer didn’t like the book but wrote engagingly and constructively a bad review? How does a reviewer decide whether their review matches the author’s definition of a bad review?

Should a reviewer play it safe and never tag an author at all?

I will always tag both author and publisher so at least the publisher will see the review. An author has the choice of clicking and reading or ignoring. A tag isn’t the same as forcing you to read the review. I don’t think that “authors shouldn’t respond to reviews” is an absolute rule: more a guidance that authors shouldn’t engage in a public argument with a reviewer. A “Thanks” or “Thanks but I don’t read reviews” is a good neutral response.

I’m also a writer and I do read reviews. I’ve thanked reviewers directly or via the publication, never on social media where a share does a similar job. I understand that social media makes it easier for readers to directly engage or try to engage with writers and, when you’re tagged, it’s difficult to know to whether the review is written by an experienced reviewer or an amateur who just wants to make a personal attack. On a bad day, it can feel as if you are being goaded or baited into a one-sided attack where you cannot mount a defence. But you are not obliged to respond or click through. A bad review often says more about the reviewer than the writer under review.

However, you can be a writer and keep everything in a journal or you can be a published writer which means accepting that once your work is in the public domain, readers will react to it. Some will write reviews and you have no control over how people will react.


 

Why I don’t post my Reviews to Good Reads or Amazon or any other site

Whilst it’s great you like my review of your book and you want good reviews to appear everywhere, please be aware that asking a blogger to also post their review on places like Good Reads or Amazon or other review sites, doesn’t do you or the blogger any favours.

My first priority is my readers

I want them to enjoy my posts and come back and read or subscribe to my future posts. They won’t do that if they can read my content elsewhere.

My next priority is to attract more readers

The more readers I have, the more readers there are for the review I wrote of your book. There are two ways of attracting more blog readers:

Link to and share posts on social media

And encourage readers to click through and read my reviews. It’s fabulous when readers of my review, authors I’ve reviewed and publishers of books I’ve reviewed also link and share: wins all round.

Search engine optimisation

To make my blog attractive enough to rank highly in the search engine page results so that potential readers looking for book reviews find mine. For search engines duplicated content – content that appears on the internet in more than one place – is an issue, particularly if the search engine cannot identify which version should rank and if a search engine ranks another site more highly than mine, I potentially lose readers. Duplicate content created by scrapers isn’t generally an issue, but my review appearing on many sites at the same time begins to look like spam.

You, author of the book I reviewed, are also a priority

I’ve won awards for reviewing. I always aim to write a good review (even if I don’t like your book) and I know publishers have used quotes from my reviews to sell books.

However, if my review is published here, repeated on Good Reads, reposted on Amazon and appears on a couple of other review sites, readers are only seeing one review. No matter how brilliant that review is, it is still the same review duplicated to other sites. Readers will start to suspect you only got one review so your book isn’t worth reading or that there are other reviews but you’re hiding them so they must have slated your book. Bored of reading that one review, readers aren’t going to look at your book.

How about publishing an Extract and Linking Back to the original review?

Some sites don’t take links so all that will appear is the extract. Out of context, the extract is incomplete and may look odd. It could compromise search engine optimisation.

How about writing different versions of the review for other sites?

I review an average of 55 books, pamphlets or chapbooks a year, although not all of them for my blog because I also write for poetry magazines. I only have a finite amount of time to write reviews. If I had write one review for my blog and then two different version for two other sites, it would take away time from writing new reviews. I’m not prepared to do that.