Writing Genres – an indicator of Writing Talent?

Genres are useful to readers. A reader interested in thrillers is likely to be delighted in finding new thriller writers. A reader that likes experimental poetry is unlikely to be interested in an anthology of poems about nature inspired by Wordsworth. A reader that likes poet A may like poet B who writes in a similar style or on similar topics. A reader who likes a poetry book from a certain publisher would do well to explore the either books from that publisher since poetry publishers are either sole proprietors or a small team of editors with similar tastes. That won’t hold true for someone buying a novel from Penguin Random House. Categorising writing by genre is a useful signpost for readers who want to browse a book shop without checking every book on the (virtual) shelves.

Genres work less well when the categorisation is done by the writer, not the writing. A reader interested in one women writer won’t necessarily like all women writers. A reader interested in books set in South Africa won’t want to restrict themselves to reading only books set in South Africa written by South African writers since that would exclude books by writers set in South Africa who don’t identify as South African but may be living there and/or writing from extensive knowledge and research.

It can also trap writers into writing what’s expected of them or feeling straitjacketed into a specific genre. Some writers don’t want to experiment with genre, just like a pop princess isn’t going to write a death metal classic. But others do and it isn’t always sensible or practical to invent another identity just because book 2 is in a different genre to book 1. Sometimes what initially looked like a great idea for a romance turns into a psychological thriller on execution. It’s not a failure to admit your latest sonnet actually works better as a sestina or that your habit of writing free verse occasionally gets interrupted by a villanelle.

Genres stop being useful when they stop guiding readers to books they will enjoy and become a way of restricting writers. It’s even less useful to pretend there is a hierarchy of genres, as if writing in one genre is more difficult to achieve than writing in another or one genre is superior to another. This pretence of superiority allows writers to be sidelined because writers whose books are not considered literary fiction are assumed to be inferior. It allows poets to be asked when they are going to write a “proper book”, i.e. a novel. This hierarchy dismisses readers who don’t want their next choice of a book to be a challenging read but want to be entertained, terrified, swept away, taken to new worlds or discover a great new poet from the safety of their beach holiday.

What makes writing talent is a combination of two things: gift and craft. An innate love of words and desire to communicate stories will get you started but will only get you so far. A writer needs to learn their craft: how to shape a story or poem and how to develop their writing skills. A singer may have perfect pitch but they still need to learn the lyrics, how to regulate their breathing so they don’t run out of breath mid-way through a song and project their voice. The gift needs to be supported by technical ability. Craft is about cutting superfluity, honing the story or poem back to its essentials, allowing poem or story to find its form, creating fully dimensional characters and keeping a reader hooked. It is possible to write a technically perfect poem or story that’s boring to read because it’s too predictable or it tells us what we already know. A person who wants to write can learn the mechanics of writing but without the talent to explore divergent ways of thinking will fail to give their writing the spark to hook and keep a reader’s interest. Just as the best figure skaters combine artistic impression and technical merit, the best writers combine talent and craft.

No one genre is superior to another. Different genres have different purposes and place different demands on writers, but readers don’t read books for the same reason. Some want the writer to focus on the story and don’t care too much about the elegance of the prose. Some want the writer to focus on the scientific details and don’t care too much about the characters. Some want elegant, experimental prose and don’t care too much about the story. Some only want to see poems written in traditional forms and will reject anything that doesn’t rhyme.

Dismissing one genre as inferior to another is like dismissing someone else’s choice of an apple instead of an orange. Maybe they don’t like oranges. Maybe they’ll choose an orange tomorrow. If you plant an orange seed alongside an apple seed outdoors in the English climate, only one will grow. That doesn’t mean the orange seed lacked the potential to grow. It means that the conditions weren’t right for the orange seed. The conditions of a genre may suit one writer but not another, that does not indicate a lack of talent.

Be Wary of Writing Advice that begins “Don’t”

We all have our bugbears and prejudices. Most of us are aware of what works in our own writing. Those writers who read widely have the advantage of knowing what’s currently trendy/frowned upon and can tailor our writing to suit. Reviewers have the advantage of knowing that what’s trendy now won’t be in five years’ time and what’s frowned upon now may well become trendy in five years’ time. The rhymed/free verse, page/performance debates have circled inconclusively numerous times.

But most writing advice given on this blog has been done so in terms of how to do something. When I use ‘don’t’ it’s in the context of ‘don’t disadvantage your poems by not following guidelines’ or ‘don’t turn up at an open mic with an armful of bangles which will bang against each other and drown out your reading’.

What I do not do is dictate how you should write or how you should perform your poems. I do not recommend you follow exactly what I say. I do recommend you read my advice and follow your own instinct.

When a writer says “Don’t use these words” or “Don’t use this device”, it’s time to evaluate what’s actually being said.

  • Often it points to reader fatigue: the writer is simply tired of reading over-used words or the same plot devices occurring again and again.
  • Sometimes a writer is urging others to avoid one of their bugbears.
  • Sometimes a writer wants others to pander to their prejudices.
  • Sometimes a writer can be quoted out of context.
  • Sometimes a writer has developed ‘big fish in a small pond’ syndrome.

It’s good to avoid cliches and it’s generally good to stick to the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule but there are occasions when the word ‘shard’ is not only the best fit but also the most appropriate word, where ‘medicated sweet for sore throats’ is too clumsy when ‘lozenge’ conveys it better, where telling the reader doesn’t hold up the plot (particularly in a fast-paced fight scene). But it’s also good to examine the words you are using to ensure they are the best ones in the context of your poem. It’s good to examine if the plot device you’re using is the best one available or whether you’re just introducing it because your favourite author uses it.

Be wary of altering your writing to fit someone else’s preconceptions. Writers do tailor what they write for the market they have in mind, but a writer’s job is to communicate and you can’t do that if you take out a stanza that’s crucial to your poem or you give a minor character too much significance. Do listen to advice from writers you trust or advice offered by editors, but pick your battles, and don’t alter anything major.

Writers have to be aware of their own prejudices and limitations. You may be an expert on the 18th century, but that doesn’t qualify you to write about the 10th century. You may be biased towards nature poetry but don’t ignore urban poetry. When your characters speak, do they speak in character or do they become ciphers for your own views? When someone else comments on your work, do they do so from an open mind or a closed one?

Media reports are often second hand and deadlines can often get in the way of research. If you read an article about a lecture a writer has given, be aware the article’s aim is to draw a reader’s interest, probably with a clickbait headline. Where possible, put the article in context. Look at the examples the writer used. Was the writer giving an lecture on a specific topic to general students or was the lecture on a specific aspect of a writers’ publications to a special interest group. Was the writer actually saying “don’t do this” or “don’t do this unless you’ve carefully thought about why you’re using this device and it is in fact the most appropriate device to use.”

Some writers are reluctant to stray out of their comfort zones. They like teaching a group of students or they like running an open mic night or like chairing a workshop. Some don’t like going to groups organised by others or discussing work outside of a classroom, preferring instead to guide small groups towards a set way of thinking or critiquing work. They often become defensive if a newcomer asks questions or challenges a viewpoint. If you attend a group, course or workshop and feel you are being constrained or pushed towards writing in a certain style, it may not be a good idea to stay.

It’s always worth remembering words fall in and out of fashion, writing devices similarly become trendy and then overused, people have prejudices and bugbears, not all writers are media experts and some writers allow their own preconceived ideas about what a poem should be to influence the criticism and feedback they give to others. So, if another writer is saying ‘don’t’, evaluate what’s being said and decide on its relevance to your writing.

Too Many Poets, Too Few Readers

Or why some magazines have started charging submission or reading fees. Most poetry magazines have two main problems: an overload of submissions and a scarcity of subscribers. The latter means most editors are working for free because the magazine only brings in enough income to print the current or next issue. In some cases, the editor is also putting their own money in to fund the magazine as well. The former means that editors are keen to reduce the level of submissions coming in. Ideally everyone submitting to a magazine would at least buy a copy and preferably subscribe to help keep it afloat, but that doesn’t happen.

A submission fee is a quick fix: if writers have to pay to submit, maybe they’d ensure they only submit their best work to magazines that are the best fit for that work.

However, submission or reading fees are a problem

  • They exclude writers who can’t afford to pay. Even though reading fees might seem a small amount, writers don’t submit once to one editor, they submit several times to different editors so even small fees can add up.
  • Not all magazines charging fees pay for acceptances so the reading fee is not recovered by the writer.
  • Writers who can afford to pay may decide not to submit on principle.
  • It deters writers from becoming subscribers. Most writers who subscribe to magazines do so because they are planning to submit to that magazine at some point and given a choice between paying a submission fee or a subscription, most will choose the former over the latter because writers only have a finite disposable income and it makes more sense to use that to work towards publication than reading.
  • The magazine restricts its pool of contributors to those who can both afford to pay and are willing to pay submission fees.
  • Since magazines typically accept only 1-2% of submissions, the writers whose work isn’t selected are subsidising the writers whose work is accepted.

Funding for magazines has always been a problem.

  • It’s frustrating for editors to see submission after submission from poets who don’t subscribe, but poets can’t always afford subscriptions and some will subscribe after an acceptance. Some poets are subscribing to magazines but not necessarily every magazine they submit to.
  • Arts funding streams are usually focused on one-off projects or are not suited to repeat funding to subsidise an ongoing project, even during the start-up phase where a magazine is launched and seeking subscribers.
  • Crowd-funding too is fine for one-off projects e.g. setting up a new magazine but not designed to provide ongoing funds and it’s difficult to run a crowd-funder without a lengthy list of contacts who can be relied on to both contribute and spread the word. It also has the inbuilt complication that crowd-funders will expect rewards for their donation. A magazine that can only offer an issue or a subscription might attract lots of low-level donations with the risk of not hitting its target.
  • There’s also the age-old problem of wannabe writers who don’t read and don’t see why they need to support poetry magazines through buying copies, but are often first to complain when a magazine ceases publication.
  • Guilt-tripping submitters (whether successful or not) into subscribing (“the magazine won’t survive unless you subscribe”, etc) is rarely successful.

It’s easy to see why reading fees, which can be used towards publication costs, are seductive.

How can publications avoid charging for submissions or using reading fees?

  • Be ruthless in rejecting writers who don’t follow the submission guidelines.
  • Consider using reading windows so writers can only submit at certain times (and automatically reject writers who submit at the wrong time)
  • Place limitations on how often writers can submit e.g. only submit once during a reading window, do not submit for a year after publication, do not resubmit until the next reading window after a rejection.
  • Consider soliciting contributions as well as unsolicited submissions – this could help redress gender/racial balances too
  • Check that submission guidelines are clear about writers submitting work in the right format for the magazine so that less time is wasted typesetting and reformatting contributions.
  • Consider being more prescriptive in describing the type of work included in the magazine. Asking poets, who are not always the ideal judges of their own work, to “Send in your best work” is an invitation to being flooded with submissions.

How can Poets Help?

  • Do support publishers and magazines through subscribing and buying books, pamphlets and magazines when you can afford to.
  • Do share your publication successes on social media (with a link to the publication).
  • Consider reviewing and championing the work of others (you may get reciprocal shares and reviews in return).
  • Check submission guidelines and double-check your submission complies before submitting.
  • Resist the temptation to flood a publication with submissions. If an editor’s accepted a poem, they are unlikely to accept more until your poem’s been published and even then there may be a rule about not submitting for a year after publication. If an editor’s rejected your work, they might welcome further submissions, but not within five minutes of their rejection. Look at what’s been rejected and consider whether the poems you’d like to submit are the best fit for the magazine before pressing send.
  • Don’t submit outside submission windows.
  • Don’t think submission guidelines don’t apply to you.
  • Gain a beta-reader or join a workshop/online forum/spoken word evening where you can test your poems on readers and listeners before submitting to a magazine. Your latest poem may be the best thing you’ve ever written but a fresh pair of ears will notice the tongue-twister in line five and a fresh pair of eyes will notice the stray apostrophe in the first stanza.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable with reading/submission fees because good writing comes from talent, knowledge of writing craft and practice, not ability to pay. Putting up entry barriers in a field that’s already got issues with accessibility – unpaid internships in publishing, the VIDA Count’s demonstration that women writers are less likely to be reviewed, that most writers need a second job to compensate for the low income directly from writing, the lack of visibility for BAME writers, etc – I don’t think is helpful.

However, writers also need to acknowledge that they can’t expect to be published if they don’t buy books and magazines when they can afford to, don’t head out to spoken word nights and poetry readings where possible, and don’t help support publishers and magazine editors through reviewing (even a one line review on a seller’s website/online forum is useful) and publicity.

NaPoWriMo 2017 Complete

NaPoWriMo 2017 is complete and I now have 30 poems and a lot of editing to do. One poem, “A Staircase of Knives” has been accepted for publication and four more are good enough to submit to editors. Of the others, a couple are too personal to send out to editors. But the rest will now be edited over the coming weeks although that process may be interrupted by new poems.

What did I write about? Most of the poems this year were based on news stories. One was a tribute to Carrie Fisher, one celebrated “Adrian Mole’s” birthday, one was based on a title generated by a random book title generator, a couple based on memories. I always find music a big source of inspiration.

The biggest hurdle in NaPoWriMo is the stamina to keep going. It’s easy to spend the last few days of March clearing the review pile, gathering a list of prompts and having ideas bubbling at the back of your mind in readiness. Sometimes life gets in the way: the unexpected event, family illness, some problem or issue that needs to be resolved. Generally, keeping the momentum going post the halfway point, is doable. It’s often at the two-thirds mark that momentum stalls. It’s the point where there’s already twenty poems but one more to the pile doesn’t seem to make much difference. The end isn’t quite in sight and inspiration seems to dry up. For me, that’s generally the time that hayfever starts and my energy’s depleted.

It helps to have a trick or two up your sleeve: sure fire exercises that trigger inspiration. Sometimes that might be reading other poems, listening to music or reading new stories. The golden shovel form (in a nutshell: take a line from a poem, use each word in the line as the last word in each line in your poem) is a good exercise – it results in a poem that later might be rewritten so it doesn’t need the line that acted as scaffolding to create the poem in the first place. Music’s good, it has a rhythm, influences mood and there could be inspiration from the lyrics, remembering where you first heard a particular song or trying to figure out what the songwriter was thinking when writing the lyrics. With news stories,  you can research into the story’s background, a item in the story or try and retell the story from the viewpoint of a minor character in the story.

A full list of my NaPoWriMo poems are here. I always say titles are important. If your poem is published in an anthology or magazine, what will draw readers to select your poem above the others?

Ella@100 jazz-inspired poetry in Leicester

Ella Fitzgerald would have enjoyeJazz-inspired poetry at Leicester Central Library to celebrate what would have been Ella Fitzgeralds 100th birthdayd her 100th birthday today. My poem, “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” has been published in “Ella @ 100”, an anthology celebrating Ella Fitzgerald in her birthplace of Newport News, Virginia.

This led to a discussion about celebrating her talent and achievements in Leicester. Leicester Libraries’ Leicester Writers’ Showcase combined with Black History Month seemed a perfect way to do this. Leicester has many talented poems and spoken word artists who have been influenced by jazz and this event will showcase those talents.

If you are in or able to get to Leicester on the evening of 18 October and would like to take part, please let me know.

 

NaPoWriMo 2017

Just over the half-way mark in National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) 2017. The aim is to write drafts or notes towards 30 poems during the month, which averages at one a day (although participants don’t have to stick to one a day). Obviously, it’s impossible to write a complete poem in 24 hours – it doesn’t give you enough space to put a poem to one side and review it with fresh eyes – but it is possible to draft a poem a day over month. But by the end of the month, participants will have enough poems to create a body of work which can be edited and will have practiced the discipline of not waiting for inspiration but actively seeking out inspiration and writing.

I’ve done NaPoWriMo before and generally found that it starts well because I’ve been preparing and have ideas in hand to start writing, the momentum carries you over the half-way mark but it starts to stall at around two-thirds of the way through the month. This is generally because you’ve got past the half-way mark but the finish line’s not yet in sight. This is where having some reserve sources of inspiration come in handy. There are blogs with writing exercise suggestions and reading call-outs for submissions on themed poems can be useful (even if you don’t write your themed poem in time for the deadline, if it’s good enough to be published, you can still submit it elsewhere).

Personally, I find news stories a large source of inspiration, particularly if you try to re-tell the story from a different viewpoint. Something I’ve found useful in the past is to pick a song at random – it’s best if you don’t use a song you are overly familiar with such as the first song you hear as you switch the radio on or if you overhear someone else’s radio/playlist, but don’t pick an instrumental. From the random song, pick a snatch of lyric such as a phrase or chorus and it doesn’t matter how accurately you’ve heard the lyric. Spend a few minutes writing down ideas or associations you make with the snatch of lyric and use that for the basis of a poem. You might find  yourself writing about the scenario described in the song, about the mood evoked by the song, about when you previously heard the song, writing about how the songwriter may have come to write the song, the effect the song has on you or an event where playing the song might be appropriate.

Do any of you have useful sources of inspiration or tips for keeping the momentum going? My list of titles so far is here: NaPoWriMo. Do any titles grab your attention?


Readings from “Welcome to Leicester” will be featured at the World Book Night event on 23 April from 7.45pm (doors open at 7.30pm) at the Donkey on Welford Road, Leicester with live music afterwards. “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” has now sold out and raised £3000 for three refugee charities.

World Book Night event 23 April 2017

Asking for feedback on your writing: watch your approach

There’s a theme emerging here:

  • Someone waved a sheath of papers in my face at a poetry reading (I was a featured reader) and talked about his inspirations, interrupting only to ask if I would read his poems. He didn’t make one comment on my reading or my poems.
  • Someone emailed me with a link to a forum, explaining that I could search for his poems, all twenty of them, and he wanted to know what I thought of them.
  • Someone posted on social media that writers who had ‘made it’ should nurture and provide help to emerging writers.
  • At a spoken word evening someone asked where he could get the poem he’d dashed off that afternoon published.
  • Someone went to a writing conference and complained that the literary agents all “hid” in the breaks between sessions (including sessions where attendees could make their pitches) so they didn’t get chance to speak to one.

I get it: you desperately want feedback on your brilliant manuscript and you’re too broke to pay for professional critiques, can’t travel to workshops (but can turn up at readings, spoken word events and conferences), urgently want to see your work in print, feel that those already published have somehow shut the door on your burgeoning career and feel that literary agents and other gatekeepers aren’t human enough to need comfort breaks or simply a break.

Perhaps you could try this approach:

  • “Loved your reading. Do you know of any local workshops I could go to get feedback on my work?”
  • “I saw your poems in…/heard you read at… Do you give critiques? I could put my poems in a document and forward them to you if you do.”
  • “Writers aren’t gatekeepers. Publishers and editors are. Workshops and writing groups are part of the literary eco-system, can anyone suggest some good online or offline groups local to me?”
  • “I’m going to read some poetry magazines and find out which might be the best fit for my poems. Any recommendations?”
  • “I got loads of good advice from the writers’ conference. I listened to all the sessions and now think I’ve got two or three agents that would be a good fit for my work. Now I’m going to polish my submission to give it the best chance.”

Any half-decent salesperson will tell you that you can have the best product in the world, but no one’s going to buy it if you can’t present it in a way that’s welcoming and relevant to your potential customer. If your potential customer is another writer or agent and your product is your manuscript or poem, consider:

  • Approaching a poet when they are about to give a reading is bad timing. The poet is preparing for their reading, checking everything is in place and getting ready to go on stage. Interrupting this process makes you at best an irritation.
  • Making it all about you and what you want without acknowledging the poet you’re approaching isn’t just bad manners, it tells the poet that their opinion and thoughts don’t matter, which undermines your purpose of getting feedback.
  • Allow the poet their personal space, particularly if there is a significant size difference between you and the poet. I doubt the man waving his papers in front of my nose realised that he was perilously close to hitting me in the face with them and that his height meant he was actually talking over the top of my head.
  • If you contact someone by email/post, at least have the courtesy of mentioning where you got their address from or how you heard of them. If you don’t it makes you look like a potential stalker.
  • If you want someone to do you a favour, don’t create work for them. If I agree to critique your poems (and there will be a cost involved), I don’t want to search for them and I will not go to an unfamiliar website that I don’t know I can trust.
  • It is the editors of poetry magazines you need to impress: they’re the ones who decide which poems get published.
  • Agents, publishers and writers who speak at or take part in panel events at writers’ conferences may simply want a break between sessions. They are not obliged to hear your unsolicited pitch. It may even be to your advantage to write to them afterwards, saying you were at the conference and heard them speak (mention the topic or briefly quote to prove it) and why you think that, as a result of that conference, your work is a good fit for them.

Writers have no obligation to help others. In fact if they’re already juggling writing around a day-job and other commitments, they may not have time. They may also not be best placed to give you feedback: writers aren’t the gatekeepers. Join a writers’ group, go to workshops and consider paying for critiques if you want feedback on your work.