To Publish or Not to Publish?

In a recent conversation on EAVA FM, I was asked for tips for aspiring writers:

  • Read, you can’t be a writer unless you read.
  • Guard your writing time – you may need to negotiate with family members or partners but if you don’t give your writing time priority, it won’t be important to them either.
  • It’s writing that makes you a writer, not being published.

Writing is the process through which ideas, characters, themes, issues, plots emerge from your thoughts and/or dreams in a way that enables you to write them down or type them. The process then extends to editing and polishing until you have a poem or story. It may be that you leave the new piece aside and come back to it at a later date so you can look at it with fresh eyes or you take it to a workshop or writers’ group or get a beta reader to look over it for constructive criticism to improve it further.

No piece of writing is wasted, even if it ends up binned or deleted, it’s all practice. Understanding how a story failed makes you better able to tackle a fresh story. Trying and failing to write a villanelle will give you a better understanding and appreciation of the form and there’s no reason to try and rewrite the failed villanelle in a different form or take one of the stanzas and start a new poem based on the extract.

Whether you show your writing to others is entirely up to you. If you want the external validation of publication, consider whether you are seeking that validation to confirm you are a writer or whether you want to share and communicate your work with others. If it’s all about you, it’s unlikely to appeal to readers. If it’s about sharing, publication is one of the routes to a readership. If others are pressurising you to get published, what are their motives? Do they need you to be published to call you a writer or do they think your writing should be shared with others? It is about you or your work?

Should you publish?

  • If it’s a shiny badge stating ‘writer’ that you’re after, make your own. The validation feels great, but publication is about reaching out to readers, not primarily to make you feel good
  • If you want to share and communicate to readers, you need a form of publication to make that happen
  • If you’re under pressure to publish, don’t. It has to be something you want, not something you do to please others.
  • Are you prepared to promote your publications on social media and market your publications? If you can’t engage with the process, it’s not worth doing and publishers, especially poetry publishers, need engaged writers.
  • Are you ready to accept that once out in the public domain, you have very little control over how readers react to your work? There will be critics and detractors as well as readers. Readers will filter your work through their lenses and may misunderstand your intentions or add baggage that you didn’t consider.
  • How will you handle reviews? Don’t read them is easier said than done. Reading, doing your research and approaching the right reviewers for your work takes time, but you won’t have control over what reviewers say.

Routes to Publication

  • Magazines and publishers – the obvious route but not the only one.
  • Competitions – many poetry competitions publish winning and short listed entries in an anthology or on a website
  • Blogs – some bloggers will publish poems but check the standard of poems (would you be happy for your work to be in the company of poems already posted?) and check guest post guidelines. You could create your own blog but be prepared to spend time promoting it. Also be aware that poems uploaded to a blog will be considered published and that will limit your options for getting blogged poems published elsewhere.
  • Performance – read at open mic slots or organise your own readings
  • Recordings – free software, e.g. Audacity, make it easy to record and upload readings of your poems. If your strength is in performance, burning a collection of recordings to a CD can be an alternative to book publication or a complement to a printed collection.
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Have you backed-up your Writing Files?

Do you regularly back-up your work or leave it to chance? 3:AM Magazine were temporarily off-line due to problems with their service provider and O2 customers were temporarily unable to make calls and access on-line serivces due to a technical fault.

What would happen if you found your blog was unavailable? Would you be able to re-create it with another provider or would all your work be lost? If your computer developed a fault and you were unable to access your files, do you have copies elsewhere or would you have lost all your work?

Creating back-up copies of work sounds tedious and time-consuming, but is necessary and, thanks to cloud computing, needn’t be overly time-consuming either. Consider these options:

  • Your ISP: does your ISP offer a back-up and storage facility on-line? Generally you’ll get a fixed amount of free space with the option of paying for more but word processed, text files don’t take up much room so the free option is probably sufficient. You may also be able to run the storage facility on booting up your computer so your files are automatically backed-up during your working session and you don’t have to think about it. This means your files are stored on your computer and your ISP’s servers.
  • On-line storage via a service such as Dropbox or ThinkFree Office. At the end of your working session, simply save a copy to your account. Usually it’s free to create an account and have a limited amount of storage with the option to pay for extra. Using these services means there’s a copy of your work on your computer and in your on-line storage account.
  • Email a copy to yourself. Not practical for files with hi-res images or videos, but an option for text files. When you send a file as an attachment, the email creates a copy. If you email submissions to editors, you’ll have a copy in your sent items folder anyway. So you’ll have a copy on your computer and a copy on your email client, via your ISP or on-line depending on which email service you use.
  • Save a copy to a flash drive. You’ll have a copy on your computer and a copy on portable storage, useful if you need to use someone else’s computer if yours develops a problem or you need to replace your computer or you temporarily lose access to on-line accounts.
  • If you write a blog or have a website, keep copies of your articles or pages in your word processor so if your blog or website goes down, you could re-create it. If you get into the habit of drafting articles on your word processor before uploading them to your blog or website, you’ll have two copies. If you then synchronise your word processor files with your on-line storage, you’ll have three copies (on your site, on your word processor and in your on-line storage).
  • Hard copies – if you’re submitting work to an editor who doesn’t take email or on-line submissions, print a second copy and keep somewhere safe (ideally a fire-proof cabinet). Of if you’re in the habit of drafting everything on paper first, keep your originals. Not as practical as an electronic copy, but it does mean if the worst happens, you can re-type your work.

If you haven’t backed-up your work and your computer develops faults, you may be able to restore some files via a computer recovery service. But why take the risk?

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Ten Tips for New Years Writing Resolutions

The Best Of lists have been compiled and analysed, the mornings are still dark, the evenings are still dark and the days still short, largely grey and damp and body clocks are still in holiday rhythm, so must be time to make those New Year’s Resolutions. 

Here are some tips:

  • Don’t front load the year by starting all your resolutions in January.
  • Resolve to check submission guidelines and competition rules to avoid wasting your time and postage by making submissions destined to be rejected and your competition entries disqualified.
  • Keep “write more” resolutions achievable and factor in research and editing time.
  • Keep reading – you’ll never develop as a writer if you don’t read and poetry magazines are always looking to increase subscribers.
  • Keep resolutions under your control – you can send out more work to publishers or write more guest blog posts but you can’t control whether or not your work or posts get accepted.
  • Factor in publicity – marketing departments, where publishers have them, can’t magic up sales without the author’s involvement in publicity.  However, writers can influence what kind of publicity they do.  You’ll know what works for you so if a marketing department ask you to do a book tour you can’t do because you’ve got caring or job commitments and hate readings, you can offer to do radio interviews and/or podcasts instead.
  • Ensure you have something to publicise – if you dash off a press release every time you get an acceptance, your local news desk will press delete every time they see your email address and thus miss that brilliant story about your climb up the Himalayas and the sequence of poems you published as a result to raise funds for a tiger sanctuary.
  • Try something new – those quiet times when there’s no book to publicise or when waiting for editors’ responses are a good time to research setting up a website, try out a new social networking site or start your next writing project.
  • Social media – monitor readers, friends and followers, but don’t sweat over daily statistics, focus on the trend and if that’s downwards, review whether you’re using the right platform for you.  If you love performing, you may be better off doing interviews and podcasts rather than blog posts.  If followers drop off, balance updates about you and/or your writing with related articles or stories by others.
  • Review – focus on successes and don’t be too concerned by failure.  Rejection is part of a writer’s life and the best way of dealing with it is to polish the piece that got rejected and try another editor.  All editors receive more submissions than they can publish, but a significant proportion of rejections are due to the writer not following submission guidelines.

Above all, enjoy writing.  If your writing becomes a chore, it will become a chore for readers too.

Turning a personal experience into a universal poem or story

Most writers initially write for themselves or a reader close to them and the writing becomes filled with references or personal experiences that aren’t suited to a wider audience.  If writing for a child, you can insert the names of their pets or reference their favourite TV programme and the child reader gets more from the story because it’s personalised.  But it doesn’t work for a wider audience of children who haven’t met the pets or don’t watch the TV programme so don’t get the references. Occasionally a writer will write in response to a personal experience, but then has to make the decision as to whether the resulting poem or story can work for a wider audience.  That decision is a tricky one and it’s not always as easy as asking if the poem or story gives enough information for the reader to follow, understand and identify with.

Fiction needs to be mutually beneficial.  Readers will stick with a poem or story that they are rewarded by.  How can a writer make a personal experience mutually beneficial?

Once recent parcel of books for review contained a pamphlet in which was a piece about the death of a man.  It was also a perfect example of how not to make a piece of writing mutually beneficial.  The details in the piece referred to the man as a “complete nobody” and implied he was a retired man living alone who had passed away during the night, no one had attended the funeral (presumably that’s no one apart from the officials) and his flat was cleared by the local authority and had contained furniture only fit for the refuse tip.  It’s a sad story although it does happen. 

The piece failed both as a poem and piece of writing.  It reduced its central figure to a cipher, a device to make the writer’s point rather than a credible character in this drama.  The writer observes, this cipher died during the night, the local authority cleared out broken furniture and a few books, the man had one friend who didn’t attend the funeral.  The writer made no attempt to suggest a life before the death.  Didn’t note the titles of those books or describe the furniture, didn’t find out if the man was a widower or single. 

The reader’s response is so what?  There is no character to care about and the event is too commonplace to startle or give the reader something to think about.  The writer is smug: “here’s a sad story but I’m not going to give you enough detail or transform my writing sufficiently to make it a rewarding read.” 

So how can writers transform a personal experience into a universal poem or story?

  • Focus: what is the message behind the experience?  In the example, the sadness of a man dying alone isn’t really enough and risks becoming clichéd.
  • Create real characters not ciphers.  Readers care about real characters and filling out a bit of detail with specifics such as what books were thrown out, how the furniture became broken, what clothes the man wore is enough to give a reader a picture of who the main character is.
  • Resist the temptation to turn yourself into a Mary-Sue (a perfected version of the author).  Mary-Sues are irritating, boring and should be kept firmly in the realm of a personal journal.
  • Resist the temptation to turn yourself into a omnipotent narrator: you’ll come across as smug and arrogant – why didn’t the writer of the example befriend his lonely cipher?
  • Take care with references and cultural short cuts.  Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen once complained that no one understood a reference to Hagar and Ishmael.  Your poem or story needs to be understood without the reader knowing the reference.
  • Read your piece, are you merely reporting or are you adding a new viewpoint or focusing on a detail not covered elsewhere?  If you characters are fully-drawn it won’t be hard to find some individual detail that makes your piece original.
  • Be compassionate and respect your reader.
  • Test it on a trusted reader for constructive feedback.
  • Accept that not all personal experiences can be transformed into a universal experience and some may be best kept private or for circulation around friends and family only.