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.

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

Is there a Poem in it? Telling a Personal Story

We learn far more from stories than instructions, whether from the Bible, fables or the latest celebrity interview. Instructions are very much a one-off template to get a job done, whereas a story gives readers characters, a narrative arc and sub plots to think about and the best stories offer credible characters who solve their own problems and allow to reader to think about what they would have done in that situation or what their reaction would have been if the same thing had happened to them.

We’re quick to share stories too: the toddler telling their parents about their day (regardless of whether the parent was there or not), strangers finding themselves next to each other on a train, in a waiting room, telling friends or family about an event, updating our status on social media or retweeting an article we came across. Reading books may be falling in popularity but we still watch films, TV dramas, follow a narrative in a computer game, listen to chat shows. The popularity of the ‘triumph over adversity’ story is undiminishable and who doesn’t enjoy gloating when hearing about someone who’s behaved badly getting a just punishment?

This desire to share stories is one of the main motivations for writers to write. But writing personal or “confessional” poems comes with pitfalls which are not just about writing technique. Writing about a personal experience isn’t just about deciding on the best approach and whittling out the irrelevant details to get to the heart of the story. There’s a difference between writing about something in a personal journal or sharing it with a friend, and putting that poem out in the public domain by seeking to get it published or performing it.

  • Is it worth sharing?
  • Have you got to the true heart of your story or are you too focused on making it true to life?
  • Can you be objective?
  • Are you ready for unscripted reactions?

Sharing a Story in a Poem

A story doesn’t have to be hugely dramatic to share, but it needs to be communicable. If your story needs a long preamble to explain the situation or the characters, it’s probably best to keep it to share with people who know the people involved. Telling a reader “you had to be there,” is insulting and unhelpful.

Can you show the reader why you or your narrating character took the course of action they did? If you need to dictate your conclusion to the reader rather than allowing them to take their own view, it’s probably not a shareable story.

Telling the Truth

The truth isn’t necessarily what happened. It’s about illustrating the heart of your story. A good writer strips out extraneous detail, no matter how interesting, and beings the story into sharp focus. It can be hard to separate detail from story when you have a strong emotional involvement, so it may be better to wait until you have that emotional distance before deciding to try and get your poem published.

It may be necessary to alter the telling of what happened to make a better poem. We do this a lot in real life, little embellishments or omissions, the little white lies to make something sound better. In a poem, you might want to make a ten minute wait a half-hour one or skip parts of the story to keep the momentum going and keep the reader engaged.

There’s a reason that workshop tutors’ hearts sink whenever a participant says “that’s how it happened.” Real life is messy, inconvenient and boring. There isn’t space for that in a poem.

Can you be Objective?

Can you read back your draft and edit it as if you are reading it for the first time? Can you let go of that stanza focused on the description something that isn’t key to the story and ought to be cut? It may be you have the draft of what could be a brilliant poem, but if you can’t read it with an editor’s eyes, keep it in the notebook to come back to later.

Are you ready for unscripted reactions?

It’s your story: you know how you reacted. But could you cope with someone else playing devil’s advocate and taking an opposing view? Could you bear someone laughing at your tragedy? Could you bear your joke falling flat? Could you cope with an editor suggesting you need to swap stanzas four and five and lose two lines from stanza six?

If your answer is “no,” you’re not yet ready to publish. This isn’t a reflection on the standard of your poem. You can guess how a reasonable person would react, but not everyone is reasonable. Once you decide to submit your poem for publication, you can’t rely on readers taking into consideration it’s personal when they comment on it. If you are going to read your poem to an audience, it’s not fair to ask them to excuse you for getting tearful at the end of the first stanza. The audience wants to hear the poem, not your personal reaction to it.

#OnWriting: Read

Don’t have time to read? You’re not going to be a writer.

You might feel like a writer, you might put words on a page, read them back, edit them, take them to workshops or open mic slots for feedback, you might edit them again. But you won’t develop your writing skills. You’ll find yourself circling around the same material, writing in the same style and polishing your work to the point where not only has it lost its shine but also any spark or sense of energy that prompted you to write it in the first place.

Writers need to read:

  • Reading is the key way of learning writing craft. You can go on creative writing courses and attend workshops which will bring the learning aspects of reading to the fore and give you a deeper understanding of a writer’s craft, but you still need to do the actual reading.
  • Reading exposes writers to new ideas, new ways of approaching a topic or experimental ways of writing.
  • Reading exposes writers to failure: reading a poem that doesn’t work for you gives you the opportunity to unpick where it went wrong and avoid those errors in your own work.
  • Reading’s easy: books and e-readers are portable and audio books are a good alternative.
  • Reading doesn’t need a huge time commitment. Those minutes when you’re stuck in a waiting room, sitting on public transport, in traffic or develop the habit of reading a poem last thing at night or first thing in the morning.
  • Reading needn’t just be about works on a page. Next time you’re watching a film or your favourite soap opera, listen to the dialogue, think about the scenery and camera work. Would you have shot that scene from that angle? Would you have taken that indoor scene outside? How did the dialogue convey the information the viewer needed to follow the plot?
  • It stops you being that loser who gets muted on social media, who becomes the poet open mic organisers struggle to find a slot for or who doesn’t get invited for drinks after workshop simply because constant self-promotion and failure to engage with or support other writers signal that you’re a writer with no interest in developing craft.

Reading differentiates the writer from the wannabe. I’ve seen the excuse from someone that they didn’t have time to read because they had a full time job, time spent reading was time not spent writing and they were not a full time writer. Very few writers are full time writers. Income from writing and publishing has dropped and most writers have a secondary job to supplement their writing income and not all those secondary jobs are part-time.

But reading isn’t about the number of books read. Skimming 40 poems a week won’t make you a better writer. Taking one poem, reading it carefully, thinking about why you like/don’t like it, working out why a particular phrase or image stuck with you after that first reading, returning to it, working out why the less memorable sections weren’t as memorable, looking at the marriage between form and content, is what will make you a better writer.

Creative Writing and Teaching

Any mixed-ability class of creative writing students can be split into four groups. Group one are those who have writing talent and have confidence in their talent. Group two have talent but lack confidence. Group three have no talent and feel insecure. Group four believe with the right tuition their talent will be uncovered even though they have no aptitude for writing.

Each student in a class will have different aspirations. Regardless of talent, some will just want to write better, some will want to be stretched to reach brilliance and some are attending for social reasons. In a non elective class, some will be there because they don’t have a choice.

Mixed ability, non elective classes are the hardest to teach: there will always be a group of students who don’t want to be there who can disrupt the class for students who do want to be there. At least in mixed ability, elective classes, all the students want to be there, but not all of them will want to learn. As well as those who want to study will be some there because they wanted to do something (it just happened to be creative writing because the art classes were fully subscribed) or wanted to meet people interested in writing; learning anything is a bonus rather than a primary aim.

Measuring achievement isn’t straightforward. Writing and publishing are different disciplines and students who learn to write to a publishable standard, won’t necessarily get published. It’s unhelpful for a creative writing tutor to use publication as a yardstick: they have no control over whether a piece of writing gets published or not, that’s in the hands of publishers.

One student may be happy to write better without getting published. Another might assume that lack of publication means they’ve failed. Both students will have new skills in being able to express ideas, better communication and the ability to understand the technical side of writing even if those skills are only used to write business reports or giving after dinner speeches rather than creating brilliant literary novels or writing award-winning poems.

There is a school of thought that if you tell students they will fail or they can’t write, the stronger students will redouble their efforts and the weaker ones will drop out. It does not work and is the sign of a bad teacher. The aim should be to keep students in groups one and two on the course and let students from groups three and four drop out.

However, telling students they can’t write will see group one, those confident in their ability, redouble their efforts and stick with it. Those in group two who have talent but lack confident will drop out, which is not the intention. Losing students in group three will free up teaching time to stretch those in group one. Students in group four who are delusional about their writing ability and see it as the teacher’s responsibility to nurture and develop the talent they don’t have, will continue anyway.

The teacher will be left with a class of very confident students with some or no talent and will have lost some talented students. A real teacher will work out which students belong to which group and focus their efforts on groups one and two.

There is, and always will be, a debate about whether creative writing can be taught. A student who has writing talent will develop their craft through courses (or reading avidly). A student with no writing talent will learn to construct a story or poem but their writing, whilst technically correct, will lack flair and creativity. A student who has the ability to write, but no desire to understand or learn the craft, will see their writing stagnate and never develop.

Taking a course won’t suit those who don’t respond well in an academic environment. But they are worthwhile if you do respond to learning in an academic environment and are seeking to learn more about the craft of writing. Creative writing courses are not a shortcut to publication. Instead they are the ability to learn more and develop your writing. They are also a starting point. If you do your creative writing degree and then stop learning, your writing will stagnate.

If you don’t think academia is for you, keep reading. There are plenty of ‘how to write’ books out there, but also read work by writers you like and work out how it works. If you come across something you don’t think works, take the time to figure out why it doesn’t work. Use what you learn to inform your own writing and editing. Consider joining a writers’ group too. Whether you turn up in person or post pieces online, getting your work peer-reviewed and receiving and giving constructive feedback will develop your writing skills. It’s not the case that someone who has done a course is a better writing that one who has not done a course. It’s about how you learn best.

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Get in the Habit of Writing

“Write every day” is one of the worst pieces of advice to give someone who wants to be a writer. It turns writing into a chore and, if a writer finds writing something a chore, readers will find it a chore to read. Writers need time off too. But writers write and if you’re busy talking about writing, taking yet another creative writing course, buying yet another ‘how to write book’ and not actually writing, you’re not a writer. So how can you get into the habit of writing?

Find the best time to write

Do you write best early in the morning or late at night? Find out and organise your days so that you can write at the best time for you to write as far as you can. If you’re a morning writer, do your chores the night before and grab and early night so you can get up in the morning.

Respect your writing time

If you live on your own, this is easy. If you live with others, you will have to train them to respect your writing time and make it clear that you’re not available. It’s easier if you can retreat into a study and close the door, but still possible if you write at the kitchen table. If you allow others to interrupt, you’re effectively giving them permission to treat your writing as an unimportant hobby. If writing is important to you, make it important to your partner and children too.

Even if you’re not writing something new, use the time to prepare submissions to editors or do research or write reviews.

Give yourself time to be alone and daydream

It’s impossible to be creative if you’re surrounded by the bustle and noise of others so make sure you get some time alone. If there isn’t space at home, get in the habit of taking a walk, going for a run or cycle ride. This is neither selfish or a waste of time. Writing isn’t just the process of getting words on paper, it’s also the process of assembling those words, making connections and reaching new insights. You can’t do that if you don’t have space to think.

Develop your powers of observation and curiosity

Watch others, open yourself to new experiences and explore. If your daily routine is getting up, taking the same route to work, meeting the same colleagues, cooking dinner from a limited choice of recipes you’re over-familiar with and then settling down and trying to write, chances are your writing will be just as routine.

Don’t fear Failure

Give that wacky new idea a chance. If it doesn’t work, keep it in your notebook. You don’t have to fail in public, but you need to try new ideas to develop your writing. Not everything you write should be a publishable piece but all those non publishable pieces represent practice and experience. It’s unusual for a poem to be accepted by the first editor it’s sent to, so don’t hold back from submitting work. An idea not working out or a poem being rejected, does not mean you have failed as a writer. It simply means the idea needs more incubation time or a different approach or that your poem didn’t find the right editor so find a magazine that might be a better fit.

Read

Doing creative writing courses or joining a writers’ group may offer the opportunity to learn and develop your writing, but the best way of learning and developing your skills as a writer is to read and read widely. Reading offers a way of finding out what works, figuring out what doesn’t work and keeping up with trends in publishing. It’s also a great source for new ideas for your own writing.

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Who do you write for?

Do you write for yourself or for readers?

Purely in terms of writing, there’s nothing wrong with either approach. When considering publishing the piece of writing you’ve been working on, there’s a big difference. Two things have prompted me to think about this question recently. Firstly writing thirty draft poems during April. Secondly a long comment made on one of my reviews.

To comply with NaPoWriMo’s target of 30 draft poems in 30 days, the focus has been solely on getting a draft written free of concerns about whether the result, after editing, would be publishable or not. The task now is a sifting through of these drafts and deciding which ones do offer a reader something and which are more personal and not worth trying to get published.

In the comment on my review, the writer explained what she was trying to achieve with her poems and wrote about what she was doing and why she’d chosen the approach she’d taken. What puzzled me was that I stopped reading her comment part-way through and had to go back and read it again to try and understand why I found it difficult to read.

It wasn’t the writing, the style or the vocabulary she used: it was the focus.

Writers talking about their own writing often do sound pretentious or precious. All artists do, simply because the finished piece has to stand on its own merit. To an audience it doesn’t matter if you dashed off a poem in ten minutes or spent months agonising about the comma in line three. What matters to them is whether the poem’s any good. Talking about how you wrote your poem is irrelevant and doesn’t act as a guide to whether it’s any good. The method might be interesting to other writer or to someone who wants to learn to write, but to a reader it’s meaningless. Some writers will happily talk about their methods, but most know that such a conversation isn’t going to add anything to the finished poem so they find it awkward.

This was why I had to read the comment on my review again. I’d switched off because it was all about the writer, what she’d tried to achieve and how she’d tried to achieve it. Not once did she mention the reader or give any indication that a reader might be involved in her work. I’d stopped reading because I’d felt excluded.

Once a piece of work is published, readers are definitely involved. Readers are individuals with their own emotional baggage, their own ideas and their own responses to what they are reading. If your poem mentions a swan, some will see a swan on a lake, some will see images from the ballet Swan Lake, some might think of Leda’s story, some might think of Proust and at least one will remember the time they were attacked and chased because they got too close to a nest. Whatever it was your swan was to represent, it needs you to communicate that so your reader is guided towards your intentions because if you don’t, the person remembering being attacked is not thinking about a swan’s grace and about to think your poem’s failed. It takes a writer’s skill to guide and communicate to a reader.

When I look through my NaPoWriMo drafts, I won’t just be looking for poems that are technically competent or that carry an important message, but for poems that can reach out and draw a reader in. They’ll be the ones I’ll be working on to bring up to a publishable standard. I know before I look that there are three that are only written for me. They will be edited, but they won’t be published. I’m the sole reader; they won’t appeal to a wider audience so I won’t seek to get them a wider audience.

That’s the difference. There’s nothing wrong with writing for yourself, but if you aren’t writing for readers, there’s little point in trying to publish that work. When seeking to get work published and reviewed, you need to ask who you’re writing for and whether your writing involves readers.

Most writers start by writing for themselves whether that’s the book they wanted to read or because a poem won’t leave them alone. But when the editing process begins, that’s when most writers start looking at markets and readers and begin looking at what they’ve written with a readership in mind.

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