A Bad Review is not when the reviewer didn’t like your book

A review is a reviewer’s opinion on a book with the aim of giving the review reader enough information to decide whether they want to read the book under review. It is possible to give the review reader enough information to do this even if the reviewer did not like the book.

Reviewers don’t always have a choice over which books they are given to review, and some might be seduced by the concept/premise of a book but then find the execution lacking. If the review reader gets to the end of a review and finds they’ve no idea whether they want to read the book, the review has failed and is therefore a bad review.

The reviewer not liking the book is not a bad review. Bad reviews are:

Reviewer writes a blurb, not a review

Publicists, marketers and publishers love using review quotes as publicity and positive reviews can support marketing efforts, but a reviewer’s job is not to market the book.

Reviewer reviews the book the way they wish it was written

It is not the reviewer’s job to rewrite the book. If the action scenes were slowed by too much description it’s fine to mention it, but the reviewer shouldn’t then re-write one of those scenes as it should have been written.  The reviewer should figure out what the writer intended when writing the book and whether those aims were achieved.

Reviewer takes the ‘critic’ part of the job description too literally

It’s rare that a book has no redeeming figures. A review that trashes a book says more about the reviewer’s prejudices or expectations of a book than the book under review.

Reviewer is writing hyperbole

A puff piece or hyperbolic comparisons – “Genius phrasing”, “this poet is to be compared with Walt Whitman”, etc, particularly when not backed up with quoted examples – helps no one, least of all the writer. No one knows which contemporary poets will still be read in 50 years’ time. And how does a genius top the current book if reviewers are over-hyping it?

Review is vague or full of ambiguities

Most poetry reviewers are also poets so very conscious of not burning bridges with contemporary poets which might be useful people to network with in future or a publisher they might want to be published by at some future point. So it can be tricky when faced with a dud book. But it’s better to refuse a review rather than post one with no substance.

Review is about the cover/book design and barely mentions the contents

Brilliant or appalling bad design may be worth a mention, but not to the extent it takes over the review. This is usually an indication the reviewer didn’t want to write the review but had a word count to meet.

Reviewer writes about the writers’ other books/career and barely mentions the book under review

Another indication the reviewer didn’t really want to write the review but needed to fill a word count and thought showing off their knowledge of a writer’s career might gloss over the lack of actual review.

Reviewer only wrote about themselves

Similar to reviews about the cover/typography, or the writer’s career, it’s another indication that the reviewer was reluctant to write a review. This is like reading an interview that is all about the interviewer and not the interviewee.

Reviewer has a grudge against a writer

The review should be about the book, not the writer.

Not a Bad Review: didn’t like the book

Not liking a book is not a reason to not write a review. A reviewer can’t be the target audience for every book published or even every book published in their favourite genre. But every reviewer can write about the book and give the review reader, who might be part of the target audience, enough information so they recognise the book is for them. Once a when a music reviewer hated a new album, I would rush out and buy it. When the same reviewer praised a new album, it went on my ‘never, ever buy’ list. We had opposing tastes. But  because he was consistent and give me enough information in the reviews for me to know I’d love what he hated and vice versa, the bands he hated were never going to lose sales because the reviewer didn’t like their music.

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.

Rejections and Successes

Rejections hurt. But they are inevitable if you want to get your writing published and read beyond your immediate circle of friends and family. No matter how carefully you research your market, select the poems that you think are a best fit for a publisher/magazine, you will still get rejections. Mostly they are not a reflection of your work but simply that the editor couldn’t fit your work in their next publishing window: they’d already had 14 cat poems and yours was the 15th or they had 3 slots for collections, two of which went to poets they’d already published and yours was only just edged out by a brilliant debut or the editor’s best friend (if you’re into conspiracy theories).

It’s also demotivating and demoralising to learn that getting one poem/book/collection published does not make you immune to rejections. It’s a foot in the door and reassurance that your work is publishable, but one success doesn’t guarantee the next.

The best way of coping with them is to see writing and publishing as two separate activities. Writing is what makes you a writer, not publication. It’s hard to hear, but writers are not entitled to be published. You’ve written something, edited it, polished it, put it aside and read it again, but you are not entitled to get it published. Publication is not the end stop of writing. Not all writing journeys can end in publication. Sometimes the journey is about the lessons learnt, skills gained, characters created and developed and craft practised and all these need to be and should be celebrated. They are still achievements, even if the poem or collection was not published.

Publishers are in the business of making money. Even independent publishers who publish 2-3 books a year need to make money, even if just enough to publish the first of next year’s books. Poetry magazines may not make money, but they still have to attract and keep a readership. Therefore, publishers are not just looking for good writing, but writing they know how to market to their readership or that fits in with their ethos.

If your writing doesn’t fit, it won’t be accepted. You may have to repurpose your work to fit the market, wait for the right publisher to come along or self-publish. That doesn’t necessarily mean your writing is bad, just that the publisher you’ve approached can’t see how to make it fit their list or how to market it to the sector they serve.

It can feel even harder if you’re writing around a day job, family commitments and/or disability and don’t have any connections in publishing. The research into finding submission opportunities, networking and discovering where your work might fit starts eating into the limited time you had to write. Joining a writers’ group (or a couple) and developing a support network can help. It feels even harder when rejections start coming in – they invariably come in batches even if you’ve deliberately staggered your submissions – leaving you demotivated.

That demotivation can feel worse if you start seeing posts of acceptances by other writers. Remind yourself that people tend to only post good news on social media and you don’t know how many rejections there were before that acceptance. Don’t rain on someone else’s parade. If you submitted to the same magazine, they didn’t steal your slot. If they hadn’t submitted, it doesn’t mean your poem would have been accepted. It doesn’t mean your writing is bad or you should give up.

This is why it’s so important to celebrate your writing successes independently of publications and separate the two activities. If you rely on the external validation of publication, you are setting yourself up to fail. Unless you self-publish, you have no control over what gets selected for publication and will feel like a failure. Similarly targets to achieve x number of rejections in a year are not good for writers because your target relies on someone else making the ‘right’ decision. Your focus needs to be on the part you control: writing and submitting to the markets that are right for your work. If you focus solely on publication as a goal, you’ll miss celebrating what you’ve learnt and achieved so far.

Choosing a Title for your Poem or Collection

Individual Poem Titles

Imagine picking up a door-stop of an anthology with several pages of contents which only list the poems’ titles, not the poets. Which one would you choose to read first?

It won’t be the one called “Untitled”: if the poet couldn’t be bothered with a title, why should the reader bother?

Or the ones called “Nature” or “Love”. One word titles are difficult to successfully pull off unless the poet has chosen a word with a complex or ambigious meaning. “Nature” is too generic: it is a gentle pastoral poem or is its nature red in tooth and claw? Is it even about the natural world? “Love” similarly doesn’t offer any clues. It could be a greetings card valentine or too personal to share with a general reader.

Place names can be tricky too. When I co-edited “Welcome to Leicester” far too many submissions were simply titled “Leicester” – how could readers choose between “Leicester” and “Leicester”?

A good title entices a reader to read the poem. It offers a glimpse into the poem or sets up a sense of intrigue. It might evoke a mood, set up a conflict, be quirky or funny. “A Phone Call” sounds fairly mundane but “3am Phone Call” sounds ominous – phone calls in the early hours are usually made to pass on a piece of urgent news. A poem called “As the willows weep into the brook” is going to be very different from “A cinnamon streak disturbs the willow.” “The Raven”, suggesting melancholy and eldritch intelligence, will be very different to “The Parrot” suggesting a riot of colour and noise.

Avoid “does what it says on the tin” style titles that give away spoilers since the reader might feel there’s no point in reading the poem. “Photograph of my Mother” doesn’t signal to the reader why they should read your poem since they don’t know your mother or the significance of the photograph. If your poem has a refrain – a repeated line or phrase – avoid using this as the title because it draws attention to it and the reader might be tempted to focus on when the refrain appears and what pattern has been set up rather than reading the poem.

It might be tempting to confound the reader, creating a title that sets up an expectation which is dashed or destroyed by the poem, e.g. taking that poem about a raven and giving it a cheerful, colourful title. Or using a title that has nothing to do with the poem but sounds good. “A Torrid Affair” sounds intriguing but if the poem doesn’t move beyond the restaurant table at a first date, the reader might become annoyed and put off.

Say your title out loud too. Sound patterns can enhance a title. Sharp, abrupt monosyllablics create a different impression to meandering, long vowels.

Try out different titles too. You’re not obliged to stick with your working title. Pick some key words or a key image from your poem and see what they suggest.

Titles can’t be copyrighted. So there’s nothing to stop you using a title that’s already in use. Likewise, there’s nothing to stop someone else using one of your poem titles.

However, bear in mind that, two poems with the same title will draw comparisons, particularly if one is more famous. Some editors/competition administrators put poem titles into search engines to check a poem hasn’t been previously published and may not have time to check beyond the title to see if it is the same poem.

Collection Titles

Publishers recommend a collection shares its title with one of the poems within. This gives a collection its focus and makes the collection easier to market.

Reviewers often read the collection through the lens of the title poem and may make assumptions about the key themes or what the collection is about based on the title poem.

Therefore, choosing the title poem needs to focus on how you want the poems to be seen or how the reader might best approach your collection. So the title poem might not necessarily be the one which won a prize, was individually published in a dream journal or is the poet’s favourite.

It is possible not to have a title poem. When I approached the publisher, I said that “Ghosts in the Desert” was a working title and they asked for a title poem. Possible title poems were “Deserted Voices”, “A Frosted Line for the Dark to Follow” or “Photographing a Ghost”. In the first ‘deserted’ was in the sense of being abandoned but it was also about soldiers who’d done turns in Afghanistan so could be about a sandy desert but that was wrong image for the collection as a whole. “A Frosted Line for the Dark to Follow” was too long and likely to become truncated. It was also somewhat abstract and didn’t really give a sense as to what the collection was about – it’s the only poem that features an ice-skater. “Photographing a Ghost” might have worked. However, when I’d drawn up my shortlist, the publishers decided the original title had grown on them and they would keep 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 Art of Anticipation

What Meets the Eye edited by Lisa Kelly and Sophie Stone published by Arachne Press book cover by Nina Thomas

Silence is a language,
a bridge between two moves,
space on a page

I described walking into a noisy cafe bar as like hitting a wall of sound. A (hearing) person said they didn’t get it: noise wasn’t physical but auditory. But sound is felt. There’s a poignant scene in “Sound of Metal” (an emotional journey that does a good job of conveying what hearing loss feels like, although there are inaccuracies) where Reuben is sitting on a metal slide in a children’s playground and is absent-mindedly drumming his hands against it. A Deaf child places his hand on the slide to feel the vibrations. When hearing is impaired, sound can be felt and you don’t have to touch the source to feel it. Sound can also be anticipated. If you see a cup slide off a tray, you know it will hit the floor. When someone is moving their mouth (and not eating), it’s very likely they are talking.

Not hearing is the art of anticipation,
what might someone say, what an actor
might mean, what a director implies
by what’s revealed through a lens
and what’s left out.

Lip-reading is an art, rather than a science. It is impossible to accurately read because no two people make exactly the same lip movements when speaking. Differences are caused by accent, pronounciation and the individual shapes of people’s mouths. It takes a combination of educated guesses and perseverance. Context helps. After an event, it’s likely people will be talking about the event. At bar, the person serving is going to ask what you want to drink. In a shop, it will be how you want to pay, did you find everything you were looking for. In some situations, pandemic masks made it easier because there was less small talk, people were more likely to be direct and skip the preamble or hesitations. At a pre-arranged meeting, talk is likely to be about what triggered the need for a meeting. Chance meetings are harder. Being able to read body language and facial expressions help. It’s possible to get the gist of what someone is saying even if not every word.

Even so, those who struggle to hear become adept at creating a narrative for a situation and anticipating what might be said. Noticing when the narrative goes astray. Noticing when intrusive noise (that cup slipping off a tray) might make hearing temporarily impossible. Filtering out background noise to focus on the bits we want to hear. Being aware of noise that might interrupt, noise at a frequency that amplifies tinnitus, noise that triggers a stress response. This becomes instinctive, we don’t consciously think about doing it. Like learning to type, it becomes a natural reaction.

Silence is never completely silent. Something somewhere moves, it might be birdsong, a distance car, the clank of a heating system, a breeze making leaves dance, even snow crunches underfoot. Not responding to someone’s question can be an answer. When not speaking, we are rarely still. We fidget, tap feet or fingers, fold arms, fiddle with clothing or hair, jangle jewellery, clothes can squeak or rattle, we hum, swallow, sniff, breathe. If you’re attuned to body language, you pick up someone’s mood and learn to anticipate their response.

When I read my poems to an audience I look for
a smile of recognition, the stillness of true listening,
a fidget of boredom, a clue into how I’m heard.

(“Tracking Sounds, Crossing Borders”)

When you can’t hear your own voice properly, you compensate. I’ve also started a sequence of poems following Rose Ayling-Ellis’s dances on BBC’s “Strictly Come Dancing” and how she manages to dance despite not being able to fully hear the music. It drew out all the compensatory measures I use without thinking about them. I pass as hearing and was nervous that I wasn’t “deaf enough” to qualify for Arachne Press’s anthology “What Meets the Eye”. I am delighted to be part of the anthology with my poem “Tracking Sounds, Crossing Borders”, even if I still don’t know where the border between hard of hearing and deaf lies.

Quotes are from my own poems.

The print anthology “What Meets the Eye” is available here

Videos with BSL interpretations of the poems are available here:

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