Who are you invisible to?

Who are you invisible to? This was a question asked at a meeting of Leicester and Leicestershire writers’ groups that took place towards the end of last year. Here’s some answers:

The Leicester city councillor who failed to make it to the meeting but recorded a video of what she would have said had she attended where she mentioned one author. Another city councillor, when the question of whether Leicester should consider applying for UNESCO city of literature status, wrote on social media, “Nottingham’s got it, why should Leicester bother?” When they have a question on literature, they go to Curve. Curve is a great theatre that does support local playwrights and performers. But most writing happens off stage.

The local paper does print some book reviews. Occasionally it interviews an author. The last Leicester author interviewed (in my memory) was Nina Stibbe who lives in London. In a recent list of Leicester writers, all six of them, one may have still been alive. BBC Radio Leicester joined in the BBC’s book club initiative. It decided to follow the national book club recommendations rather than include local writers. Someone told me no one bothers reading/listening to local media anyway. A Leicester author said it was easier to get reviewed in the Washington Post than it was locally.

I find myself sitting near a new face at a spoken word/poetry event. They ask me for my name and if I write. After I answer, they say they’ve never heard of me. I ask if they’ve read any poetry magazines, been to other local live literature events. When they answer no, I say that’s why they’ve never heard of me.

Someone told me they’d never seen any listings for literature events I’d been involved in promoting. I asked if they’d been to any local venues recently. No, they hadn’t so they hadn’t seen the leaflets distributed there. I asked if they read local media. No, they didn’t and it hadn’t occurred to them that a local event wasn’t going to be publicised in a national newspaper. Did they listen to local radio? No. How did they expect to hear about local events? They couldn’t answer.

The late Graham Joyce once had a manuscript returned with a (London) publisher’s reader’s note still attached. The note asked if anyone would want to read a novel set outside London. The reader felt no one would be interested in a novel set in Leicester. Graham Joyce’s 5 British Fantasy Awards and World Fantasy Award would suggest differently.

Leicester’s always been a great place for creativity. A place where you can have a go, try out a new piece in front of an audience, find a workshop, a writers’ group and discover new literature. However, it’s also a place of outsiders, where writers seem to have to find their audience elsewhere and import back to their city of creation. Leicester lacks a central network/listings point where people can find out what’s going on and be pointed in the right direction. I’ve been told Leicester’s “Not Nottingham” and “A City Full of Surprises”. So Leicester’s identity is shaped around a negative and a lack of knowledge. Its writers lurk in shadows and find audiences elsewhere. Surely it can do better.

Rod Duncan launches Queen of All Crows at Leicester Writers' Showcase


Leicester Writers’ Showcase: Literary Activity in Leicester

Leicester Writers' Showcase logo

Wednesday 13 December 2017 from 6.45pm at Leicester’s Central Library, Bishop Street, LE1 6AA, free entry, Leicester Writers’ Showcase is hosting an event focusing on literary activity in the Leicester and Leicestershire and what can be done to raise its profile locally, nationally and internationally.

Speakers include:

  • Councillor Sarah Russell, Assistant City Mayor for Children, Young People and Schools
  • Henderson Mullin, CEO, Writing East Midlands
  • James Urquhart, Relationship Manager for Literature in the Midlands, Arts Council England
  • Emma Lee, President Leicester Writers’ Club, poet, reviewer, editor and event organiser
  • Farhana Shaikh, Dahlia Publishing who also organises Leicester Writes meetings and festival and publishes The Asian Writer
  • Bobba Cass, activist, performance poet and spoken word event organiser
  • Carol Leeming FRSA, of Dare to Diva Productions, poet, songwriter, playwright and performance artist.

The event will be chaired by Attenborough Arts Centre director, Michaela Butter MBE.

There will also be a display of books by local writers, and a discussion and question and answer session with those present.

Leicester Writers’ Showcase

The Leicester Writers’ Showcase started in January 2017 and hosts a literary event once a month. Featured writers and publications include “Welcome to Leicester”, “Lost & Found: stories of home by Leicestershire writers” (both Dahlia Publishing), Carol Leeming, Marianne Whiting, Andrew Bannister, Julia Herdman, Mahsuda Snaith, Siobhan Logan, Soundswrite Poetry Press, Ella@100 – an evening of jazz-inspired poetry and November’s event will feature Margaret Penfold (15 November from 6.45pm, Central Library). All events are free to attend.

For Readers

The Leicester Writers’ Showcase offers a chance for local readers to meet and hear from local writers and find out what books local writers publish. Readers can discover local authors who have won major book deals, been shortlisted for the Hugo Awards, Carnegie Awards, won short story competitions, have been published both in the UK and abroad and host live literature events and readings locally. It gives readers the chance to ask questions directly to authors about their journey to publication, what promotions and publications are forthcoming and be the first to hear about new work so it’s a great networking opportunity.

Local writers are those either living or working in Leicester or who have been published by a Leicester publisher or who regularly attend a writers’ or spoken word group in the city. Showcases so far have included Leicester-themed anthologies, short stories, contemporary poetry, historical fiction, science-fiction, contemporary fiction and spoken word.

For Writers

Leicester Writers’ Showcase offers local writers the opportunity to use Central Library free of charge to hold a launch-style event, combining a reading, talk and question and answer session to suit with the library providing light refreshments during the interval. It is possible to writers to team up with another writer or for a writers’ group to showcase the group’s work. Writers and spoken word artists can bring books, CDs, pamphlets, etc to sell at the event.

Writers also benefit from the Libraries producing leaflets for distribution throughout Leicester City Libraries and similar venues. In addition the Leicester Writers’ Showcase prepare press releases which are sent to the Leicester Mercury, Great Central, BBC Radio Leicester and Writing East Midlands. In addition each Leicester Writers’ Showcase event is videoed and photographed and featured writers are able to use these in other promotional materials.

Leicester Writers’ Showcase Projects

Projects that have arisen from Leicester Writers’ Showcase include the Local Writers’ Fair held during Everybody’s Reading and the Local Writers’ Corner, which will feature books by local writers and will be set up during 2018. Leicester has a great literary tradition which the Leicester Writers’ Showcase supports.


Should Writers be on Twitter?

Yes, Writers should be on Twitter:

  • With 140 characters, you have to keep tweets to the point
  • Keeping in touch with other writers
  • Keep up to date with submission call-outs
  • Keep up to date with publication news
  • Useful for quick questions and links to help shorten research
  • Useful for others to contact you
  • Potential to pick up writing/reviewing commissions
  • Holds reader engagement between publications
  • If you are social and retweet others, the favour is returned

No Writers should not be on Twitter:

  • If unmanaged, can become a procrastination tool/time suck
  • Tweets are momentary and easily lost in the noise
  • It doesn’t necessarily translate into sales
  • It’s not a great tool to show off writing skills
  • It encourages readers to interrupt your writing
  • Writers should broadcast literature, not offer social/political comments
  • It feeds a writer’s ego

No writer should be on twitter or any other social media outlet either. All writers should be free to decide which social media outlets (if any) work for them. For some of you that will be twitter, for others it won’t. And that’s absolutely fine.

If you’re enthusiastic about twitter, it will work for you. If you lack enthusiasm, it will show and could lose you readers.

What’s not fine is publicly criticising other writers for their choices. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to marketing and reader engagement.

BTW I’m @Emma_Lee1

Andrew Bannister reading at Leicester's Central Library on 17 May from 6.30pm

Self-Published Books – to review or not to review?

I do consider self-published books for review (see my review guidelines), but some bloggers and magazines don’t. I treat self-published books the same as traditionally published books: what I’m looking for in a review is quality of writing, poetic craft and whether the book would appeal to readers. Generally I can satisfy myself as to whether the book under review meets those criteria before opening the book.

Why Reviewers Don’t Review Self-Published Books

  • Concerns about the Quality of the Book
  • Concerns about the Quality of the Writing
  • Concerns about Vanity Publishing
  • Concerns about Authors’ Reactions

I’ll look at each in turn:

Concerns about the Quality of the Book

These concerns apply equally to self- and traditionally-published books. A printed book should cope with repeated opening and closings, the cover shouldn’t curl, the pages should be numbered and the text should be readable. An e-book should be page numbered, navigable and the text should be readable.

Generally there’s very little difference between self- and traditionally-published books in terms of print quality. However, some self-publishers omit to consider:

  • Cover image – if one is used it needs to be quality, uncluttered, relevant to the book without spoilers, and not render the cover text illegible.
  • Pagination – the easiest way for a reviewer to find that section they wanted to quote is by page number. When the pages aren’t numbered its harder for a reader to keep their place and few readers read a book in one sitting.
  • Table of Contents – you’ve gone to all the trouble of giving your poems hook-worthy titles so don’t waste it by not including contents.
  • Acknowledgements/Publishing Credits – a list of where the poems within have been published before or placed in competitions is a quality mark, i.e. a sign to the reviewer that the poet has submitted work to editors who have decided it worthy of publishing. A book with no acknowledgements has no quality mark and the reviewer may suspect the writer has rushed into print.
  • Author Biography – a writer with a track record will reassure reviewers over the quality of writing. No information about the author is a red flag. Even if the writer is using a pseudonym, there should be a way of conveying what qualifications the author has to write this book.

Concerns about the Quality of the Writing

From experience, this is a non-concern. Both self- and traditionally-published authors are in the business of selling books and it’s fair to say that some traditionally-published books have been published because the publisher knows the topic or author will sell the book even if the writing quality is uneven.

Self-publishers can allay these fears by including publishing credits and an about the author section that demonstrates their track record.

Concerns about Vanity Publishing

Vanity publishing has long plateaued and is actually dying out. With printers and publishers advertising self-publication services and plenty of advice about the pitfalls of self-publishing, vanity publishers are finding it harder to hoodwink naive writers into paying over the odds to see their book in print.

Concerns about Author Reactions

This is a tricky one and a valid concern. A self-published author has more at stake and is more likely to view themselves as needing a positive review. A traditionally-published author at least has the publisher to remind them that reviews aren’t particularly influential, the reviewer wasn’t part of their target market, the important thing is sales and one person’s opinion is just that.

Unfortunately social media makes it easier for authors to contact the reviewer and/or comment on the review publicly.

My experience is that for every negative comment, I’ve had at least three positive ones. I also know that I wouldn’t have the track record I do in reviewing if I wasn’t any good at it. Every negative comment I have received has reinforced the opinion I formed in my review. I’m not going to be derailed by comments from one author and/or their supporters so I will continue to consider reviewing self-published books.

Jazz-inspired poetry at Leicester Central Library to celebrate what would have been Ella Fitzgeralds 100th birthday

Social Media Bullies

Would you

a) Tag a writer in a public Facebook status to ask them to read your manuscript whilst pointing out that they ought to help struggling or beginner writers
b) Approach a professional service to review and critique your manuscript because you’re aware that writers will charge a fee, may not have the time and acknowledge that just because a writer has had a book published, it doesn’t make them experts in how to get your book published because writers aren’t publishers?

Would you

a) Tweet a writer publicly to ask them to review your book with a link to where the book is for sale (effectively implying the writer should buy a copy and then review it)
b) Check if the writer has a reviews policy and follow it or find a contact address and email them privately to ask?

Would you

a) Tag a writer in a public status to ask about an event the writer is not taking part in and has no connection with
b) Sensibly realise the organisers might be better placed to answer your question?

Would you

a) Use a public Facebook comment to ask a writer for help with a school project saying you will lose marks or get a lower grade if the writer doesn’t help
b) Acknowledge that a writer is not obliged to help with your school project and make a polite request by private email without the blackmail?

Would you

a) leave a public comment after a blog post to ask a writer to review a blog site on the basis that the writer should be interested in the blog topic
b) Accept that a writer’s job is to write, not to review your site and certainly not for free and in any case a private request might be better?

Would you

a) Publicly tag a writer to ask them to recommend magazines or publishers to submit work to.
b) Acknowledge that there are no short cuts to doing your own research and targeting the right markets for your work and that another writer may be able to tell you where they got published, but would not be able to tell you which publishers would accept your work?

Did you answer mainly a) or mainly b)? Discuss.

Questions and Answers from “Ghosts in the Desert” Launch

These were some of the questions (which may be paraphrased – I wasn’t taking notes when being asked) I was asked after my book launch for “Ghosts in the Desert” on 4 July. I have expanded on some of the answers below.

How do you know when a poem is finished or is there always another edit?

I think a poem is finished when the edits I’m making are not beneficial to the poem. For instance if I change a word and end up going back to the word I had previously or take out a comma only to put it back in again, when I feel as if I’m tinkering rather than achieving anything. It’s always possible to edit further but there’s also a point when editing looks suspiciously like procrastination.

How do you collect poems around a theme and does that theme inform new work?

Putting a collection together, for me, is a retrospective act. When I can collect together around 80 poems, I start to look for a common theme or anything that suggests the poems are interlinked and can form a body of work. If I can find sufficient poems I will start thinking of them as a collection rather than individual poems. If I can find a substantial number of poems but not enough for a collection, then I simply don’t have a collection. I don’t set myself the task of writing new poems on the theme because I find such new poems are often derivative or repetitive, saying what I’ve already said in a different format.

It’s fair to say, though, that common themes do tend to emerge in writing poems. So, whilst I wouldn’t consciously decide I’m going to write poems on theme x, I may well find that of the last dozen poems I’ve written, eight will be about theme x.

How did you start writing or have you always been writing?

I have always told stories. Even before I could pick up a pen, I used to build houses from play bricks and create stories for the people who might have lived there. At some point stories gave way to poems.

Which poets influenced you or got you into writing?

At school, we only studied male poets. I didn’t believe that female poets didn’t write poems that weren’t worth studying, but figured out I wasn’t going to find them through school or in book stores that seemed to concentrate on dead, white, male poets or anthologies. A friend sent me a copy of the Ted Hughes poem “You Hated Spain” and I identified with the “you” of the poem. That “you” was Sylvia Plath and through her, and her contemporaries such as Anne Sexton and Anne Stevenson, I found female poets worth reading and studying.

More recently I’ve enjoyed reading: Carrie Etter – I loved “Imagined Sons”, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Helen Ivory, D A Prince, Kei Miller, Daniel Sluman, Sheenagh Pugh, Ros Barber’s “The Marlowe Papers”, and I’m looking forward to the publication of Lydia Towsey’s “The Venus Papers” due from Hearing Eye. I enjoyed reviewing Mandy Kahn’s debut.

How do you define your style or poetic voice?

That’s a tricky question to answer without dropping into vague phrases or sounding horribly pretentious. Defining a poet’s style is often best done by others. A voice emerges when you’ve tried writing like other poets or tried writing on themes other poets have written about and you’ve found an approach and vocabulary you’ve comfort with and confident in. Voice comes when others read a poem and identify it as yours or conclude that no one else could have written that particular poem.

Do you find reviews of your work useful?

Yes. Sometimes you know instinctively that something is working but you don’t always analyse why and a review can provide that analysis. Reviews can also confirm that you were communicating what you wanted to communicate with the reader because the reviewer has interpreted the poem the way you intended it to be. Bad reviews can be helpful too: they either suggest the interpretation you intended wasn’t communicated fully so the poem needs another edit or a lazy reviewer’s interpretation is so far off the mark that it reinforces the intention of the poem.

Ghosts in the Desert is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing

Ghosts in the Desert book launch

Supreme Court lifts injunction on Autobiography

Legal matters normally fall outside the scope of this blog, except for a brief guide to copyright, however, this particular case is of interest to writers, particularly those who base their poems on personal experience, autobiography or memoir.

In the case [2015] UKSC 32 concerning James Rhodes v OPO and another, the Supreme Court had to consider an appeal against an injunction which prevented the publication of an autobiography in the form it had been written. The full judgement and press summary are here.

A father had written his autobiography which graphically detailed extensive abuse (including rape) he’d been subjected to as a child. Knowledge of this abuse was already in the public domain because the father, a concert pianist, author and film maker, had referred to it in interviews which were widely available and could be easily found through internet searches. The autobiography was dedicated to his son and would be available as an ebook and printed book in the father’s resident country. The son lived with his mother in a different country and the father didn’t intend the son to read it until he was old enough to understand it. The son has diagnosed disabilities in processing information and a consultant child psychologist concluded he would suffer psychological harm and emotional distress if he saw the content of the book. An interim injunction was granted so that the claim that publication of the book in its current form would intentionally cause harm to the son.

The Supreme Court allowed the injunction to be lifted. The essential grounds for this were that the father had the right to tell his story in his own words so publication of the book was justified providing it complied with laws concerning for example confidentiality. However, there was no law preventing the publication of factual material, even if it was graphic and distressing. The book was intended for a general audience, not just the son. Consideration was also given to the wording of the injunction which was found not to be specific enough. It is worth reading the judgement for the full conclusion. I’ve only mentioned the aspects that are of wider interest.

This is a welcome judgement. It acknowledges that where a writer seeks to publish a poem, story or memoir based on autobiographical facts, the writer is free to do so providing laws on confidentiality and non-provocation of hatred are respected. Another party will not succeed in obtaining an injunction to prevent publication on the basis that someone who is not the intended audience could suffer psychological harm or severe emotional distress (here that means a recognised psychological illness resulting from emotional distress; not just a one-off emotive reaction).