Leicester City Libraries Week events

Free entry but phone 0116 299 5401 to book (unless otherwise stated against the event) or complete the Libraries’ contact form https://www.leicester.gov.uk/your-community/libraries-and-community-centres/libraries/. Refreshments included.

An evening of Poetry with Emma Lee 6-8pm Wednesday 6 October at Leicester Central Library, Bishop St, Leicester LE1 6AA. Emma will read from her wonderful collection The Significance of a Dress and discuss the collections origins in an anthology she co-edited Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge. Emma Lee’s publications include The Significance of a Dress (Arachne, 2020) and Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, 2015), Mimicking a Snowdrop (Thynks, 2014) and Yellow Torchlight and the Blues (Original Plus 2004). She co-edited Over Land, Over Sea (Five Leaves, 2015), was Reviews Editor for The Blue Nib, reviews for magazines and blogs.

Flyer for an evening of Poetry with Emma Lee at Leicester Central Library

Not Writing for ‘The Man’ Working with Independent Publishers, Wednesday 6 October 6-8pm Knighton Library, 167 Clarendon Park Road, LE2 3AJ. In this panel events, Jamie Mollart, Rob Palk and David Wharton, three authors published by Sandstone Press, will discuss why independent publishers are important, how they allow writers to take chances, challenge the status quo, strike out into new ground and bring exciting new material to the reading public. Each will talk about their own work, their journey to publication and how getting published has changed their lives. There will be an audience Q&A and a bookstore hosted by Fox Books.

Getting Published with Headline Changed my Life Cathy Mansell 2-3.30pm Thursday 7 October at Pork Pie Library, Southfields Drive, LE2 6QS. Cathy writes romantic suspense novels set in Ireland, England and America. She’ll talk about life as a writer, her inspirations and how her publishing deal with Headline has been life changing. There will be time for audience questions. “I can’t imagine my life without writing.” Cathy’s latest of 7 novels, published in 2020 is The Dublin Girls: a powerfully heart-rending family saga of three sisters in 1950s Ireland.

Black Lives Matter: Poems for a New World Thursday 7 October 3-4.30pm Westcotes Library, Narborough Road LE3 0BQ, featuring readings from poems published in the anthology.

Change your life and write a novel! A workshop event with Helen Cooper 4.30-6.30pm Thursday 7 October Beaumont Leys Library, Beaumont Way LE4 1DS. Helen Cooper, author of The Downstairs Neighbour – a suspense novel with a twist – offers this exclusive writing workshop as part of Leicester’s Libraries Week celebrations. So, join this free workshop for top tips on how to get started and write that novel that you’re bursting to get out. No previous writing experience equipment needed, though you might want to bring your favourite pen and that classy looking notebook you’ve been saving!. To book call 0116 299 5460.

Short Story Salon with Dahlia Books 6-8pm Thursday 7 October Hamilton Library, 20 Maidenwell Avenue, LE5 1BL. An exclusive live edition of Dahlia Books’ monthly Short Story Salon. Featuring exceptional local talent, this event will celebrate all things small and perfectly formed with short story readings and a discussion on the craft of writing. To book for this event use 0116 221 2790.

The Man Who Fell in (Love With) the Sea and other stories of 100 words Rod Duncan 6-8pm Friday 8 October Central Library Bishop St, LE1 6AA. Rod Duncan introduces the 100-word story and reads from his new collection Tableau Vivant. His cast of characters include a concierge who keeps his mouth closed, a mischievous crow, a cleaner who borrows her employer’s shoes, an irresistible honeysuckle, and a spaceship that lands in the shade. Rod will also talk about the creative process, and why 100-word stories can be a great way to develop your writing craft. If you want to write a novel, first learn to write a story of 100 words.

An afternoon of short stories hosted by Julia Wood and Beth Gaylard 1.30-3.30pm Saturday 9 October, Central Library, Bishop St, LE1 6AA. Leicester Writers’ Club, a community of writers based in Leicester and Leicestershire, has a 60-year history of developing the best in local writing talent. Come along for a relaxed afternoon of short stories from current members. I will also be reading at this event.

What Prose Writers Can Learn from Great Poetry

Guest post from Savannah Cordova.

There seems to be a quiet antagonism between poets and prose writers: the former feel snubbed by the wider reading public, the latter like they’re regarded as the commercial sell-out cousins of verse writers. But even beyond questions of how different writers feel they’re perceived, prose writers sometimes treat poetic writing as an entirely distinct skill from prose — approaching poetry with reverence, awe, confusion, or even fear.

Yet the fact of the matter is, good writing is good writing — and prose writers would be wise to take a few leaves out of poets’ books. To highlight how this can be done, here are four things that poets have a particular knack for, from which any writer could benefit… especially prose writers, who may find that their work isn’t so different from poetry after all.

1. Concision

By virtue of its (typical, but not obligatory) brevity, poetry as a form demands concision. At the extreme end of this practice, you’ll encounter haikus and poems like William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”, pared down and distilled to the fewest words possible. While prose writers won’t be dealing with this kind of microeconomics unless they’re (literally) writing microfiction, there’s still a lot to learn from this process.

To arrive at this small number of words, a poet must be crystal-clear about what they wish to convey. It doesn’t matter whether clarity is achieved spontaneously or through several rounds of editing; the point is that once it’s there, the redundant words can be left on the cutting room floor. What’s left is condensed, controlled, and precise meaning — the kind that anyone writing short stories or even novellas should strive for.

2. Abstraction or impressionism

With all their concerns for plot, story structure, and style, prose writers can forget to pause and just meditate in abstract terms. Poets, on the other hand, take solace in the freedom provided by abstraction. Take Hart Crane’s The Bridge — to me personally, some of its lines are completely opaque, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the gathering, accelerating feeling the poem assumes, or its strange, arresting series of images.

I’m not saying plot and narrative progression don’t matter. On the contrary, abstract meditation and other impressionistic elements can actually strengthen the force of a narrative by making a character’s experience or point of view more immersive and engaging — so when it comes to narrative and poetic prose, don’t feel like you need to choose one over the other. (For more on how to strike this balance, check out Emma’s post on showing rather than telling!)

3. Capturing the moment

While we’re on the subject of meditation, something else that poetry does (and which is often neglected in longer prose works) is capture individual moments in a quiet, stunning way.

One such poem is Philip Larkin’s “Home is so Sad”: a short poem that encapsulates, in just a few lines, the haunting nature of isolation and loss. The same compact power can be felt in Seamus Heaney’s “When All the Others Were Away at Mass” — another poem that freezes time to memorialize a single, emotionally loaded moment.

Similar to incorporating abstraction or impressionism, pausing the demands of the narrative to build on the potential of a single, static scene is fantastic for your creative writing, and definitely something to practice if you’ve not tried it much before.

4. Incredible passion

Some poems are pure tour de force, ending on a note so passionate it feels like the poet just let their mic drop (without the somewhat obnoxious connotations of that gesture, perhaps). Great examples of this effect include Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eurydice”, Langston Hughes’ “I, Too”, and Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”. Vitalized by their creators’ passion and energy, these poems sweep their readers along with their powerful verse.

Prose writers can learn a great deal from this force of emotion. While simmering tension is a great way to build suspense in longer works, moments of drama — however short and abrupt — will always raise the stakes in a story and communicate ideas more effectively. So draw from your heart, and write with passion (but as Emma says, do so with the humble awareness that you are not Wordsworth.)

I hope these lessons have been helpful to you, or at the very least raised some interesting thoughts about the different strengths of each literary form. Prose and poetry are not worlds apart, after all, and I believe that there’s plenty to be learned on both sides!

NaPoWriMo 2021 and the Value of Writing Communities

Last year I planned to take a break from #NaPoWriMo because I thought I’d be busy promoting “The Significance of a Dress” (still available as a print or ebook from Arachne Press). However, the pandemic led to cancellations so I ended up doing #NaPoWriMo, finding art an inspiration to compensate for the lack of planning. This year, I thought I’d take the break I’d planned last year but I found myself writing a poem on 1 April. Call it habit or discipline, but April seems to be a month for drafting poems.

It’s also a good month to start new habits. The drear, winter mornings have gone, clocks have gone forward an hour on to British Summer Time so the evenings are staying lighter for longer and the outdoors is looking greener with plants coming back to life. For me its also the month before hayfever really starts, a breathing space before outdoors becomes hellish. There’s a plus to having to wear a mask. I rarely bother with new year’s resolutions, but when I do I usually see January and February as planning, thinking months and get resolutions underway in March/April as the season turns. January’s a horrible month to start anything: there’s that post-holiday lull, the weather’s discouraging and it’s still dark at beginning and end of the day.

During the pandemic, I have been relatively privileged: classed as a keyworker but able to work from home with enough space to set up an office-at-home that’s not in my living area. Since my writing has always happened in the gaps around everything else, it still happens in the gaps around everything else. I don’t have a routine: a poem wants to be written, it gets written, a short story haunts me, it gets written and I’ve always got something to review. I think my breathing would have to stop before the writing does.

Fortunately the writing groups I belonged to have moved online. Yes, things have changed and members have had to adapt, but it’s worked. I’ve not lost the sense of belonging and community. Moving online has opened up other opportunities too. Normally, I would never attend a poetry magazine launch in Australia, but, thanks to Zoom, last year I did. I’ve also been able to attend other poetry events that I wouldn’t have ordinarily got to and met some social media friends and followers virtually. The monthly Broken Spine readings have included UK poets as well as poets from Nigeria and the USA. The world has felt closer and less distant. I hope that when events are able to go ahead in real life, the virtual events won’t be forgotten and organisers will continue to find ways of combining both whether through recording the live event and uploading the recording on a video channel or enabling a Zoom component to festivals, combining living readings with online readings/workshops.

Normally March sees States of Independence take place at De Montfort University, billed as a book fair in one day, it hosts book stalls from regional independent publishers and writers’ groups along with talks, readings and panel discussions from regional writers, publishers and organisers. Last year’s States of Independence, which I was due to read at, was cancelled. This year’s will be virtual. It’s free to register to take part and website has a Festival Book Hub with links to independent publishers and writers involved, plus writers’ groups and DMU’s Centre for Creative Writing Resources. If you can’t make it on the day, the website is live now and worth checking out. I am taking part in two events:

1 – 2pm Rise Up: Building Resilient Writing Communities Networking Event with Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Books. Leicester Centre for Creative Writing and Dahlia Books invites you to Rise Up – an open meeting for writers, publishers and creative practitioners. Rise Up is an opportunity to network, exchange ideas and showcase your talent. In this roundtable discussion led by publisher Farhana Shaikh we will reflect on the past year, discuss the impact of the pandemic and consider the importance of our communities to help us move forward in tumultuous times.

4 – 5pm Poetry Cafe with readings from Anthony Joseph, Rennie Parker, Michele Witthaus and me. I’ll be reading poems from “The Significance of a Dress”.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch
The Significance of a Dress banner

Choosing which Writing Tips to follow

Be Careful Whose Writing Advice you follow

Someone unencumbered by a day job, childcare or disability is going to give advice useful to people in their situation. If you have a day job, childcare or disability or any combination of those, following such advice is setting yourself up to fail. That’s not to say the original advice was bad, just that it doesn’t apply to someone in your situation.

Write everyday is good advice for someone starting out who needs to get into the habit of writing. But bad advice if you’re the type of writer who works in fits and starts.

Be Careful What You Measure

We tend to do what we can measure, but only measure what you can control. You have no control over which submissions will become rejections or acceptances. You can influence the ratio of acceptances to rejections by checking you’re sending your best work, you’ve read your target market and know your work to be a good fit and you’ve triple-checked you’ve followed the guidelines. However, these precautions won’t guarantee success. Targeting x number of acceptances or y number of rejections won’t work because the outcome isn’t under your control and sending out submissions with the aim of hitting an acceptance/rejection target encourages you to submit even when what you have available to submit isn’t right for that market.

Another easy measurement is the word count. It’s so easy, the word processing program does it for you. But it’s problematic:

You set yourself a target of 2000 words per day. Monday you reach 1000 words. You’re actually pretty pleased with that: first day of a new regime, you’re just warming up so half-way there is a good start.

Tuesday, you write 2000 words, hitting your target. Moreover, you’ve got to the end of a short story. Measurement-wise, this is a success.

Wednesday, you sit down and look at your 3000 word story. You realise it’s bloated and start trimming all the adverbs, take out that repeated scene and decide to take out a minor character who had some good dialogue but didn’t add anything to this story (the character’s not been killed, just put aside for a story where their good dialogue is relevant). At the end of your writing session, you now have a story ready for submission. This is actually your most productive day. Measurement-wise, however, it’s a disaster. You wrote -1000 words.

What You Need To Measure

All readers care about is if your story or poems are any good. They don’t care if you spent 20 minutes or 20 years writing them. They don’t even care how many rejections your story/poem had before it was accepted. They care about whether what you wrote was a good read, however that is defined. Some readers want a pacey thriller, some an escapist romance, some want to be transported to another time period or another world, some want a thought-provoking poem.

Getting words on a page is only part of that achievement. It’s also the most measurable part, but only accounts for, at best 20%, of creative writing. Once words get on the page, they need editing. No one’s first draft is brilliant: it has to be sifted to see if those flashes of gold were genuine or pyrite.

But the most important part comes before words get to a page: the thinking, planning, plotting, researching, immersion in the fictional world you want to create. If your measurements don’t give yourself time to create, to play, your writing won’t be creative.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Bookstall at Leicester launch of The Significance of a Dress

Why Managing Interruptions Matters

Get the feeling you’re working more hours but seem to be getting less done? Some of us are doing more work, especially those also trying to homeschool alongside their usual daily routine. For others it’s a struggle to structure a day. Shunted into doing a day job from home, dealing with new clients who work to a different schedule or having lost work is an opportunity to re-think our daily structure. However, trying to create anything new when the mornings and evenings are still dark, outdoors is damp, spring still feels a long way off and the ongoing lockdown encourages feelings of hiberation rather than the energy to focus. Working from home might give an illusion of more control, however, it also means being available for contact from colleagues during regular working hours.

Creative projects, such as writing, require uninterrupted time in an environment where a writer can develop their skills, concentrate and draw on cognitive capabilities. Some may call this “being in the zone” or “in a state of flow”. It’s space to be fully immersive in the poem or story being worked on. It’s not necessarily about writing/typing but chance to think, plot or plan. Getting there isn’t like diving in at the deep end of a swimming pool, more like padding up from the shallow end.

An interruption, such as a phone call, email or message via social media, firstly takes the writer out of their flow and secondly creates a delay in paddling back up to the deep end. Frequent interruptions are not just irritating, but prevent creative work. When you know you’re going to be interrupted, you can leave a scene part-way through or even leave mid-sentence so you know that at the start of your next creative session, you have to finish that scene/sentence and you can get back in the flow fairly quickly. However, unplanned interruptions don’t happen at convenient points.

Unfortunately, asking others not to interrupt is rarely successful. They have to be trained not to, especially children who tend to be trained not to interrupt dad when he’s working but tend not to extend this courtesy to mum. This requires discipline from the writer (although obviously not to the extent of neglecting dependents: your latest masterpiece is not an excuse to ignore everyone else completely).

  • Figure out when is the best time for you to write and when it’s not so critical for you to be interrupted. You might want to write from early morning to the start of working from home but be available in the afternoon. If your best time is in the evening, be available in the morning.
  • Don’t allow asynchronous communication to become synchronous: messages via email, social media, tools such as Slack, don’t require an immediate response. A message won’t fade because you’ve not responded within five minutes of it being sent. If closing these tools isn’t possible, turn notifications off, make use of ‘out of office’ autoresponses and train others to expect a response when you’re ready.
  • Ask whether you actually need to be at a meeting. Often, it’s easy to invite everyone to a meeting, especially when no travel is involved, rather than consider what each individual has to contribute, what each needs to know whether they need to be there. Meetings don’t just take up the time of the duration of the meeting but also preparation and the time taken to get back in the zone afterwards. If it’s a need-to-know situation, might it be better for you just to have the minutes afterwards? If you need to convey information, is that better done via a report circulated beforehand rather than a presentation with questions during the meeting?
  • Keep a channel for messages that require quick responses, e.g. a chat tool or phone. If someone needs a quick response, they use this channel. If it can wait, use other channels. You’ll also need to define what will require a quick response.
  • Practice not being at others’ beck and call. Anyone who knows me doesn’t phone me. Therefore I know when my phone rings it won’t be urgent so, unless someone has scheduled a call, I will ignore the phone. Clients in different time zones will send messages at their convenience, not yours so the onus is on you to park their message until you are in work mode. Utilise email folders so you can sort messages into ‘urgent’, ‘respond later today’, ‘respond within a week’ and ‘response not needed’.
  • Respect your writing time. Occasionally compromise is necessary, but if you let others interrupt with trivial matters, you send the message that your time isn’t important and invite further interruptions.
  • Remember each interruption comes with a cost, not just the loss of time taken to deal with it but also the time taken to get back into the rhythm of writing.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch
The Significance of a Dress launch banner

How Not to Request a Review

2020 was the year of the review request. Poetry books are best sold through live poetry readings and while book launches and readings moved online, online events don’t currently generate the sales that in real life events do. Reviews became more significant as a way of creating a buzz for a book to attract potential buyers. However, the number of reviewers didn’t expand to absorb the demand. There were times during lockdown when I was getting three requests a day.

Writing a good review is not something that can be done quickly. Unlike a blurb or a puff piece, where someone is providing a quote to be used on a book cover or as part of the book’s promotional material, a good review can’t be written after skimming through a few pages. A reviewer needs time to read the book, usually at least twice, consider the contents and draft a review. I wrote a behind the scenes article on book reviewing for The Blue Nib which explains the review process.

I write reviews for The Blue Nib, The High Window Journal, The Journal, London Grip, Sabotage Reviews and this blog. I was the first person to win the Saboteur Award for Best Reviewer twice. I have decades of experience. I have one of the quickest turn around times in poetry reviewing, although I review around my own writing and other commitments. Even so, the most I can manage is three reviews per week (in short term bursts; this unsustainable in the longer term), not three per day.

‘No’ is not a word anyone likes to hear, but no was what some review requesters were going to have to hear. Here were things requesters did that made it easier to say no:

Didn’t Read the Guidelines

My review policy is here. Notice I ask for an email giving me details of the book/pamphlet and poet. I do not ask for the manuscript itself at the request stage. I only want to see a manuscript if I’ve agreed to review. Sending the complete manuscript is presumptuous and I’m not obliged to review just because you asked.

Made a Public Request

Yes, it’s tedious searching out reviewers’ contact details and contacting them directly. Far easier just to post on social media and tag a few reviewers.

However, making a public request places an obligation on the reviewer to make a public reply. Ignoring a post you’re tagged in makes you look lazy or arrogant. A reviewer who needs to turn down the request, either because it’s not something they’d review or because they don’t have time to review it, makes the reviewer look like the bad guy.

So a public request feels like the requester is bullying the reviewer into saying yes.

If you can’t find a reviewer’s contact details, try a private or direct message or contact a magazine they review for.

Targeted the Wrong Reviewer

Generally I don’t do non fiction or children’s books. A reviewer whose focus is historical novels is not going to appreciate your cyberbot space opera. At The Blue Nib and on this blog, I review books/pamphlets I think are going to interest readers. A good review is more likely to be forthcoming from someone who’s as passionate about your subject as you are.

Also bear in mind that individual reviewers generally don’t get to decide what a magazine reviews. They might be able to make recommendations, but the reviews editor makes the decision and that’s where your request needs to go.

Don’t Share Reviews

It takes seconds to click a ‘retweet’ or ‘share’ button on social media. If you don’t share reviews of your books or anthologies that have included your work, don’t be surprised if reviewers are reluctant to say yes to review requests. A share is as good as a thank you. It’s also for your benefit: you get a bigger audience for the review of your work.

Ask a Reviewer to also post to other review sites

I get it: you’d like to see reviews of your book/pamphlet on goodreads, Amazon, other booksellers and anywhere that takes reviews. However I’ve blogged on why I don’t post my reviews to other sites here.

Check Your Search Engine Results Pages

Reviewers are writers, writers do their research. I’m also an avid reader and subscriber to publishers’ lists so usually when I get a review request I am likely to know either the poet because I’ve seen their work in poetry magazines or the publisher because I’ve read other publications from them. On the occasion where I’ve not heard of a publisher or poet, I’m not going to take an author information sheet or publisher’s blurb at face value. I’m going to stick names into a search engine. What I see in the results matters.

A new-to-me publisher is more likely to be a source of interest, particularly if I’m familiar with poets in their forthcoming publications list or familiar with the work of the people setting up the new publisher or can see reviews of their other publications.

A new-to-me poet is also more likely to be a source of interest, particularly if the search engine results pages show links to their work in poetry magazines and other publications or links to spoken word and live literature events.

Even if there’s no publication history, someone who is a member of/helps with a local writers’ group or spoken word night or reviews or blogs or contributes to the literary ecosystem is going to be of more interest than a request from someone unknown with no such connections.

However if a search engine results page shows listings for the publication but no other publications and an interview where the poet appears to boast about not reading contemporary poetry because poets writing now are “mere poetasters”, yet is asking one of the people they’ve just insulted to help promote their work by writing a review, that’s an easy no.

My maximum review capacity is up to 2 books per week or 104 books per year. In 2019 I wrote 92 reviews. In 2020 I wrote 119.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image
The Significance of a Dress by Emma Lee book cover

What became of the girl who counted

Uncharted Constellations from Space Cat Press

Some submission call outs on a theme can leave you cold, bereft of ideas. However, an experienced writer once told me that you should always reject your first idea, because it’s the one everyone has thought of, and think again.

When Space Cat Press put out a call out for their “Uncharted Constellations” anthology focusing on the space race, I felt bereft of ideas. It’s rare I’ll write a poem about place and in the poems where I mention the moon, it’s about its appearance, not men landing on it. I write about people. Space, beyond earth, is mostly people-less. When I wrote about one of Uranus’ moons, Miranda (all 27 of them are named after Shakespearean characters), she was personified, but I didn’t think I could pull off that trick again. The landings on earth’s moon took place before I was born so there were no memories to draw on, no stories of the TV being dragged out at school or the gathering of the family round a small screen in an attempt to feel a part of history. Space felt distant and cold.

Yes, there are women astronauts, but it’s the men who make the headlines. Tim Peake made the headlines as the ‘First British Astronaut to go into space’ in 2008, which was news to Helen Sharman who’d managed it in 1991. Valentina Tereshkova made 48 orbits in space before the moon landing. However, as recently as March 2019, an all-woman space walk had to be cancelled because there weren’t enough spacesuits in the right size. It’s easy to see why the space of rockets and landings hasn’t fired women’s imaginations to the same extent.

But, while men have grabbed the headlines, women have been buried backstage. When Charles Babbage asked Ada Lovelace to write a paper to demonstrate how his analytical engine worked because he was too busy working on his difference engine, Ada Lovelace figured the best way of doing this was by writing a program to show its workings. Even in 1969, programming was still seen as a women’s job, regarded as little more than typing. It was only as a significant anniversary of the moon landing loomed, that film decided to look at these programmers and include them in the story.

Marginalised people are definitely on my radar. Melissa Todd in her review of my “The Significance of a Dress” in The Blue Nib says, “Emma Lee creates poetry with the voice of an avenging angel, seeking out inequalities from all across the globe and down the centuries to fuel her work.” The idea of a poem about one of those mathematicians who enabled the moon landings became a natural response to Space Cat press’s call out.

One thing that did catch my imagination was Katherine Johnson’s explanation that she worked backwards. Her starting point was where Apollo 13 should land and then she worked back to work out where it need to take off, what angle, speed, etc, etc. It’s like taking a first draft of a story and working back from the ending to the beginning to ensure the logic of the story arc holds and identifying extraneous subplots or diversions that may be elegant pieces of writing but don’t move the plot on so don’t belong. Similarly, we count down to a rocket launch, from ten to one, not forwards.

The specular, or verbal mirror image, suggested itself as the form for the poem to take: a poem that works in reverse, counting down from ten to one, but can also be read from the last line to the first, from one to ten. Readers will need to get a copy of the anthology to test if that holds true for the poem.

“Uncharted Constellations” will be available from Space Cat Press from 13 September.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

When to Ignore Advice

Photo credit: Pam Thompson

The more absolute a piece of advice, the less confidence the advice-giver has. Rules are comforting: they provide a framework, like a safety harness or a pair of stablisers, particularly in creative work where it is harder to measure the outcome objectively. Rules help writers avoid common mistakes and act as a way of passing on experience learnt the hard way. But they don’t give much room for creativity and some rules, e.g. write x number of words per day, are ableist and fail to allow for different writing routines and patterns. Rules also tend to focus on the mechanics of writing, e.g. getting words on a page, because these are measurable. They don’t focus on how a writer finds and selects those words: the daydreaming, research, thinking, the actual creative work, because that can’t be measured.

Mostly advice is given with good intentions or to a specific group of people. “Write every day” is useful for beginners who need to get into the writing routine and out of the habit of waiting for inspiration. It’s not so useful for writers whose creativity ebbs and flows, who can go for weeks without writing and then find themselves in a month where they can do nothing but write. It’s also unhelpful for writers with disabilities or chronic conditions who literally cannot write everyday.

The problem occurs when a piece of advice is put on social media without regard for its audience. It’s presented as an absolute rule with no thought as to how it got that status or its impact on an audience it wasn’t intended for.

Recently this appeared on twitter,

“People reading ten lines of performance poetry out of their notebooks need to up their game. If you don’t know it then it’s not ready. At any one time the average rapper has about 4000 words ready to go from memory.”

  • Poems work in two media: the page and the stage. Rap generally only works on stage (yes, lyrics can be published, but the primary focus is performance). The comparison is not balanced: it’s not comparing like with like.
  • Rap relies on rhyme and ad-libbing. It’s much more focused on the instant, a call and response to a topic or idea. The rhymes act as a mnemonic, so long as they are in place, getting each word before the rhyme is less critical. Rap also uses repetition. Poetry less so. Poems can rhyme but are not obliged to. Each word counts and must justify its position in the poem. There’s no room for error since precision is key. Substituting ‘harbour’ for ‘quayside’ can completely change perspective in a poem. Poems can’t be ad-libbed.
  • A poem is ready when it’s ready. Not when the poet can remember it off by heart. A poem is not dependent on its poet performing it. A poem is capable of standing alone and being read off the page without the poet being present.
  • Poets also have large stores of words ‘ready to go’ but poems aren’t just working in the medium of performance. So having a large stores of words memorised doesn’t help learn and retain an individual poem.
  • Rap tends to be a rapid flow of words where silence is frowned on. Poems aren’t just the words, but also the spaces, the line endings and stanza breaks. Silence is part of the poem. If a poet’s not careful, silence can inadvertently signal to the audience the poem has finished when a pause is intended. Reading from a page/screen is a visual clue that the poem hasn’t finished.
  • In memorising a poem so it can be performed despite distractions – audiences don’t always sit nicely for the poet – there’s a risk the poem is performed by rote and merely recited rather than expressed. A reading where a poet looks over the audience’s heads or even closes their eyes to recite a poem is one where the audience feels disengaged.
  • Conversely there’s also the risk that poets desperate not to just recite a poem end up over-emoting or trying to act out the scene the poem describes, resulting in an over-the-top reading which can be unintentionally comical or so distracting the audience forgets they’re listening to a poem.
  • Audiences can find the sight of a book or screen reassuring. Poets aren’t actors and a poet having to pause a reading to re-start a poem or give up on a poem because they’ve forgotten the third stanza is uncomfortable not just for the poet but the audience too.

There are many reasons why some poets don’t perform from memory and not all of them are due to memory impairments/disabilities. Reading from a notebook or screen is a visual prompt that the focus is on the poem, not the poet, a reminder that poems have the alternative medium of the page.

Slams can invent their own rules and if a slam rules that poems should be performed from memory, you don’t have to enter. But poetry readings, whether in a live venue or on video stream (live or pre-recorded), you are in control and you do not have to memorise your work. I don’t. That’s my personal choice and I stand by it.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch

Should I Tag Writers on Social Media?

There’s no simple yes or no answer. Unless a writer has a very strict “read no reviews under any circumstances” policy, most writers are likely to welcome being tagged in a positive review. However, if someone has written a savage review and tags the author in the hope of getting a reaction, no writer would welcome that tag and the tagger needs to ask themselves if this is the best way of getting a point across (hint: it isn’t). It’s also a question of numbers. Getting one or two tags occasionally doesn’t feel too onerous, but getting thousands in one day feels overwhelming because each one is effectively a demand on a writer’s attention. Even just to read the post and decide not to respond takes time away from actually writing.

Why Tag Writers on Social Media?

The reasons for tagging writers on social media generally fall into one of the following categories:

  1. You want the author to know you’ve bought their book
  2. You’ve posted a photo of a book or books and want the author or authors to see
  3. You’re participating in a blog tour or have received a guest post and want the author to know it’s live
  4. You’ve written a post or reviewed a book and want the author to see it
  5. You’ve seen a post/review/article about the author or a subject they write on and think they need to see it
  6. You want to ask the author a question and, since you follow them on social media, that seems the easiest way of going about it

Do You Need to Tag the Author?

  1. It’s great to know someone’s bought your book and a tag in a brief, tweet-length post doesn’t take that long to read.
  2. Again, it’s great to see books being read and a tag in a brief post that doesn’t link elsewhere doesn’t take that long to look-up. If you’re posting one platform with a link to another, check your post explains why followers need to click your link. Just posting the link with no explanation looks like spam. Please only tag an author once. If you’ve tagged an author in the original post, don’t tag them in posts that link back to the original.
  3. It’s polite to let authors know that you’ve completed your section of a blog tour or their guest post has been used, but, again, please only tag an author once. If your post gets shared, the notifications start to get numerous and potentially overwhelming.
  4. Some authors don’t read reviews and don’t want to be tagged in review posts. Reviewers won’t know which authors have this policy though so tag once and include the publisher so the author can see that the publisher’s been informed and they don’t need to do anything.
  5. If you’ve seen a post/review/article about the author or a subject they write on and think they need to see it, don’t tag the author. Chances are the author’s seen it or knows about it. Writers research. Many do searches on their names or book/poem/story titles to check for pirating/ plagiarism. Following through on you tag is wasting their time and giving them less time to actually write.
  6. You want to ask the author a question: don’t do this on social media unless the writer has agreed to take part in a question and answer session online and only ask questions during the session.

Why Should I Not Tag the Writer in a Question on Social Media?

A question is rarely a simple yes or no (even if you think the answer is yes or no) and it may take time to provide an answer. Leaving an unanswered question on social media makes it look as if the writer is tardy in providing the answer whereas in fact it’s the questioner’s fault for asking an unsolicited question in the wrong medium at a time that makes it difficult for the writer to answer.

If you’re asking an author to do something for you, use a private channel. If you can’t find the author’s contact details, approach via a publisher. Tagging is lazy and says you couldn’t do your research, so why should the writer bother to respond? Responses may also encourage others to follow so suddenly one request, which might have been manageable, becomes ten or more, which isn’t manageable and public refusals may reflect badly on the author even though the fault lies with the requester for not making a reasonable approach.

The other problem with tagging a writer in a request (to comment on your review/post, to write a review, look at your manuscript, etc) on social media is that you have made that request public and your request has an audience. The writer’s response therefore is also public and also has an audience.

It is very difficult to tactfully turn down a public request even if the writer has painstakingly explained why they can’t comply with the request before turning it down. Making that public request looks like a form of bullying or blackmail since your audience are expecting a positive response and may draw negative conclusions before considering whether the original request was reasonable or not. I blogged about Social Media Bullies here. Don’t be one.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

book table at 14 March launch


NaPoWriMo 2020

I hadn’t planned to do NaPoWriMo this year. “The Significance of a Dress” had two launches planned at the beginning of March, one of which had to be rearranged at very short notice to a reduced audience. There were further readings planned later in March and events in May; all delayed or cancelled. Poetry books mostly sell at readings. Chain bookstores don’t support poets. Promotional activity had to move online at a time when Amazon deemed books non-essential and Hive temporarily shut then reopened in a limited capacity, so getting word out that independent publishers and book shops were will still open and delivering became more crucial than ever. My employer is a supply chain to local government, schools, academies, charities, the police and NHS and became a food hub for Leicestershire, making up food parcels for distribution to vulnerable people during lock down so I was still working, albeit from home. NaPoWriMo therefore became a way of carving out a period of creativity each day, a time to play when work seemed to be dominant.

Unlike previous years when music and reading were key sources of inspiration, this year ekphrastic poems came to the fore. Ekphrastic poems take a piece of art (not necessarily visual art) and provide a descriptive narrative either of the scene depicted or giving voice to the subject. Not being a particularly visual person – I even think in words rather than images – I guess this inspiration came from a place of wanting to find different sources of inspiration.

It wasn’t the sole source. Some poems were inspired by overheard phrases, some by submission call-outs where a magazine or competition asked for pieces on a theme. Of course, writing to that theme doesn’t mean your poem can’t be submitted elsewhere, although it does have to work outside of the context of being a piece of work on a set theme. Similarly, I think ekphrastic poems have to work as pieces that can stand alone apart from the artwork that inspired them. Naturally, people familiar with artwork may see references and layers that those who don’t know the artwork may miss, but it’s not always possible for magazines or publishers to reproduce the artwork as well.

Are there any pandemic-inspired poems? Naturally, around eight of them. All but one will work outside the context of Covid-19 so if I decide to submit them for publication they won’t need a pandemic-specific context. While it’s right that writers (and artists) bear witness, I don’t think it’s right that writers pressure themselves or have external pressure urging them to write directly about the pandemic. Some writers will respond fairly immediately, others need time for ideas to take shape and form not because they are slow or poor writers but because their writing process is different and transforming an idea to a fully-formed poem takes a different route. The best work rarely comes from a place of being caught up in the experience. Those who have been furloughed, had sufficient savings to remove financial worries, weren’t also trying to home-school children and had a garden to relax/exercise in, will have a very different experience to someone trying to home-school and do a full-time job from home, who will have had a difference experience to a key-worker unable to work from home, whose experience will differ from someone with underlying conditions who has had to self-isolate without access to a garden.

I’ve listed the titles of my draft poems at NaPoWriMo as usual. I will update if any are subsequently accepted for publication.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image