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?

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

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.

Adrian Mole’s 50th Birthday celebrated at Leicester University

Goody bag for Adrian Mole 50th birthday celebrationsLeicester’s famous fictional son turned 50 on 2 April and Leicester University held a party for him.

I didn’t get to the morning and early afternoon sessions – an illustration workshop and a discussion of Sue Townsend’s work as a playwright. I did get there for the later sessions which were billed as talks from John Tydeman, Geoffrey Strachan and Caroline Holden Hotopf plus Simon Schatzberger and the premiere of three new monologues commissioned by Leicester University’s Centre for New Writing and selected by Sue Townsend’s husband, Colin Broadway.

Bridget Blair of BBC Radio Leicester introduced the first session, remarking that it was also BBC Radio Leicester’s 50th birthday. John Tydeman wasn’t able to attend so Leicester University’s Simon Dixon introduced the Sue Townsend archive and explored how Adrian Mole came about. One boring afternoon in the 1970s, so boring “you’d fill in the ‘o’s’ in the News of the World” one of Sue Townsend’s sons asked “Why don’t we go to Safari parks like other families?” It’s not recorded what Sue Townsend answered, but his whiny voice was about to become Adrian Mole’s. She’d been mostly bored at school until a Mr Mole introduced her to reading, even so she was still to leave aged 15. She worked, got married and found herself a divorced mother of three at the age of twenty-three. She met her second husband, Colin Broadway, who discovered her manuscripts and persuaded her to join Phoenix Writers at what was then the Phoenix Theatre (now the Sue Townsend Theatre). She would write on whatever was to hand, even beer mats and shopping lists. When she was losing her sight, her husband and children typed from her dictation. On one occasion, Colin Broadway got a panicked call from their daughter. There’d been a power cut and had lost some work because the power cut kicked in before it could be backed up. Colin’s advice was to give Sue “a vodka and tonic, a fag and ten minutes.” Sure enough, after those three, she recalled everything and the dictation began again. She began writing plays and put together the original script for Nigel Mole aged 14 and three quarters which she sent to the BBC in March 1981. John Tydeman was worried about the name being too similar to Nigel Molesworth and thought 14 and three quarters was too old. Nigel became Adrian and lost a year. The BBC broadcast the script and got five agents phoning them interested in the work.

Geoffrey Strachan of Methuen publishers then took up the story. He was looking for comic novels suitable for illustrations and Adrian Mole seemed a good fit, “splendid, funny, touching and wonderfully evocative… with a playwright’s ear for dialogue and timing”. Sue Townsend felt it important that Adrian grew in real time and the first book stayed with him until his 15th birthday. The contract was signed in December 1981. Methuen felt that it was a tricky sell: a comic novel by an unknown novelist and so kept the cover price below £5. The BBC commissioned five more episodes in January 1982 for broadcast in the autumn. The book was due to be published as they were broadcast. Initially sales reps found it hard to get booksellers to take the book but after the broadcast, they couldn’t get stocks in quick enough. It’s since been translated into 40 languages and became the bestseller of the decade.

Caroline Holden Hotopf took up the story at this point. Geoffrey Strachan introduced her to Sue Townsend at the Royal Court Theatre without telling Sue that he was thinking of commissioning Caroline to design the book cover. He wasn’t aware that Caroline had also grown up in Leicester and, once Leicester was mentioned the two hit it off. Caroline shared Geoffrey’s view that there should not be any images of the main characters themselves – it was down to the reader to imagine them. “The tops of buses are a big place to think of ideas” and this time hit on idea of a bathroom mirror because it gave room for the book’s title and author’s name whilst still being able to capture Adrian at that awkward stage between leaving childhood and not quite being an adult. The bathroom taps on the cover of “The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole” were in her bedsit in Stepney where she was living at the time. She went on to do the illustrations for the deluxe editions and the record cover for the musical. Caroline remembered a long conversation with Sue Townsend about possible locations to use as representing locations in the books. In the question and answer session, Bridget Blair offered to try and locate that list, which is in the Sue Townsend archives, and take BBC Radio Leicester listeners of a tour of the locations later in the year. When Caroline received her copy of the record of the musical, she was baffled because one side played a Rolling Stones album although the other was Adrian Mole. She rang the record company who hurried her a correct pressing. She wondered how much the miss-pressed version would be worth.

Bali Rai brought some students from Moat and Madani Colleges in Leicester on stage. He had introduced them to Adrian Mole and tasked them with writing about their city in a Mole-like fashion. Four of the resulting pieces were read in turn, three by their authors. The first was a typical school diary written at the point of moving to secondary school and discovering that not only did the author have to tolerate her brother hogging the TV remote and glasses but also the indignity of braces. The second was about observations in the school library where the library became a metaphor for Leicester. The third was about the gatehouses on Victoria Park, seemingly an innocent consideration of what the gatehouses might have been for until a final twist where we learn the over-curious writer managed to climb in and now can’t get out and is hoping to throw her letter outside in the hope of being rescued. The final piece was read by Bali Rai, after confessing to being teased for being a Liverpool fan, as it started with a boy doing algebra with one eye on the football, thinking school next day would be full of post match analysis, is dismayed when the classroom is silent. The writer didn’t catch the news that there had been a bomber who called himself a Muslim. The silence was drawn from the classmates struggling to comprehend how someone could use the name of their religion to justify a horrendous act and how they could defend themselves from the anticipated backlash.

For reviewing purposes it makes more sense to bring Simon Schatzberger in now although, having to combine travel with other commitments, he arrived after the first monologue. Simon had done some children’s TV work in Nottingham so already had a Children’s Equity Card when he saw the advert for Adrian Mole at the Phoenix (now Sue Townsend) Theatre. It was purely happenstance that he’d rehearsed the section in the diaries about the Royal Wedding and that turned out to be the section he was asked to do in audition and few days later he heard he got the part. His experience so far had been in TV so he didn’t think it unusual to have Sue Townsend sitting in on rehearsals, doing required rewrites on the spot in her Berol Handwriting pen. Initially there was a canoeing scene and the actor playing Adrian’s mother wanted to go canoeing to prepare. Simon wasn’t a good enough swimmer then to join in and, after the scene got dropped, decided method acting wasn’t for him. Sue Townsend was hugely pleased to hear that some of the audience had come along because they knew the book and it was their first trip to a theatre. The play moved to London. Sue Townsend insisted on bringing the same actors to the West End rather than changing to more famous names. This was to her detriment because some critics snobbishly queried why she wouldn’t use “names”. Simon remembered breaking his arm in an accident on set and Sue Townsend make sure he’d phoned his own mother to reassure her and ensured he’d been able to eat dinner. On another occasion, they’d been given use of the producer’s chauffeured car, only to discover later that the use of the car had been charged to expenses, which meant the pot available to pay actors’ wages was reduced. Sue repaid the cost of the car so the actors wouldn’t lose out. One night she showed the cast a leather jacket she’d bought that day, dithered over whether to return it. She’d felt guilty about spending “so much” money on herself. The cast persuaded her it was really OK to keep the jacket. Later, at the end of the 1980s, Simon was asked to do an Adrian Mole monologue at Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre. He phoned Sue Townsend to ask her to write it. She told him that he knew Adrian so well, he should write it. He wrote a draft and phoned her again to read it to her and was surprised when she OK’d it. She said he shouldn’t be surprised, “I chose you to be Adrian Mole.”

From the reminsciences, Sue Townsend came across as very down to earth, motherly and committed. Once her husband, Colin Broadway, had shown support for her writing, there was no stopping her. However, she remembered her roots, as the guilt over the leather jacket showed, loved a good gossip, loved listening to people and getting involved in new experiences. Exactly the sort of person you’d love to meet in a theatre bar, knowing instantly you’d lucked out and hadn’t been lumbered with the pub bore.

The first of the three commissioned monologues was Maria Taylor’s “The Age of Convenience,” where Adrian Mole asks his mum what its’ like to have a son turn 50. “Her face fell the way Theresa May’s does whenever someone on the news mentions Nicola Sturgeon.” Later he notes, “Mum is a great-grandma now, but she has taken up social protest as a hobby. Other seventy-two year old women would’ve taken up crochet.” He rails against Giles, Pandora’s current squeeze, “who went to Oxford and drives a Porsche. What’s a wealthy, hunky, twenty-seven year old gym enthusiast got that I haven’t?” However, she is first to wish him a happy birthday.

Marilyn Ricci’s “Rocking On” sees Adrian the successful ghost writer, although still anxious about selling-out, on a birthday weekend in Skegness, potting to stop his mother making a birthday speech, still sighing over Pandora but able, after an incident involving a coastguard rescue to wonder if someone else’s salty, passionate kiss might lead him astray after all.

The final monologue from Heide Goody and Iain Grant, “Let Them Eat Custard Creams” is a letter from Adrian to the Arts Council who have turned the application for funds for his reading group down on the grounds “the amount we requested for refreshments was unrealistically high.” Who knew that the selection of biscuits for a book group would be an exact indication of the types of books under discussion? Adrian does and has graphs to back him up.

At this point it was time to collect our goody bags and break for tea. A buffet was laid on, decorated with moon-shaped balloons (the moon might have missed Adrian’s 4th birthday but it was represented at his 50th), with sandwiches, canapes, cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks stuck in a foiled dome to look like hedgehogs, fairy cakes, mini-doughnuts and the cake, made by Frances Quinn, a winner of Great British Bake Off, and accompanied by a mix of disco music included Rick Astley, Scissor Sisters and Andre 3000, the sort that’s easy to dance too but you feel slightly embarrassed to admit to knowing the tunes: a perfect choice.

Adrian Mole birthday cake

“Kaleidoscope” Sarah Leavesley (Mantle Lane Press) – book review

Kaleidoscope Sarah Leavesley book cover“Kaleidoscope” is an extended short story, just the right length to really get to know the narrating character, Claire, in detail and Claire is worth knowing. Her story is complex and, like looking through a kaleidoscope, can be viewed from many angles. Urged by a psychiatrist to write to help her make sense of her story, Claire reluctantly begins, trying to piece her fragments into coherence. Each fragment is separated by a catalogue listing for an item in their “Perfect Mothers’ Accessories” feature. Claire remembers a red kaleidoscope produced by her father as a ‘gift’ on the day her younger sister was born. The kaleidoscope was passed to Claire’s own baby daughter. One is a Julie, the other Julianne, but they are not confused.

They do share traits: Julie was the perfect little sister making Claire feel clumsy. Julianne is the perfect little baby making Claire feel inadequate. With her husband and sister focused on the baby, Claire slides into depression. Readers follow the story through Claire’s eyes.

She remembers still suffering morning sickness at her father’s funeral after his sudden death from a heart attack. It leaves her too focused on the physicality of pregnancy to process her grief. The grief re-emerges after Julianne’s difficult birth by cesarean section. Midwives and health visitors are too preoccupied with bureaucracy to really notice Claire. Claire feels Julie is a better mother to Julianne who only seems to cry in Claire’s presence. She feels as if her body is no longer hers: it let her down and she failed to give birth naturally. She and her husband sleep separately when they used to share a bed and she grows to suspect he’s having an affair.

Although Claire’s story distorts, the narrative is clear. Claire muddles memories of her own childhood with memories of her newborn daughter. Few marriages survive the loss of a baby. Claire blames herself but readers are free to decide if she’s right. The writing is precise and evocative. Through the fragments, a clear image of Claire builds as someone shaped by her childhood as an ignored but responsible sister to a prettier, sociable younger sister, someone whose grief was sidelined in favour of focus on physical issues and someone who slipped through the safety net health visitors are supposed to provide. Despite the distorting mirrors, the shiny images, Sarah Leavesley is firmly in control, as the body of a kaleidoscope keeps all the pieces in check but still allows the viewer to see what they want.

Kaleidoscope is available from Mantle Lane Press.

Leicester’s most famous fictional son turns 50 this year and to celebrate both Adrian Mole and his creator, Sue Townsend, Leicester University are having a party on 2 April 2017. Entry free, but you need to book in advance (click link): Adrian Mole’s 50th Birthday.