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.

Why Writers should make a Will

Writers should make a will for the same reasons anyone else makes a will: to ensure their wishes are carried out after their death.

However, writers also have another reason to make a will: copyright. Who you leave your literary legacy to makes a huge difference, even if you’re not around to care.

The role of a copyright holder or literary executor

  • Granting permission for others to use your work
  • Withholding permission from others to use your work
  • Posthumous publication(s)
  • Caretaking – ensuring your work is not used without permission, guarding your reputation and ensuring your work is properly credited

Why it matters

  • Death is an unpredictable event and chances are there will be at least one work in progress and/or a collection of unpublished works – who would you trust to edit, prepare for publication or even destroy these?
  • Do you want any of your work to be published posthumously, eg as a collected or selected poems?
  • Do you want any out of print works reissued?
  • A copyright holder giving permission for biographers or critics to quote from your work can imply that a biography or critical work is approved, who would you trust to make that decision?
  • Conversely a copyright holder’s refusal to allow biographers or critics to quote from your work may frustrate efforts to assess and maintain your work in the public domain, ensuring you slide into obscurity,
  • Poet Sylvia Plath didn’t leave a will. After her death her copyright and literary legacy belonged to her estranged husband, Ted Hughes. While he published her collection “Ariel”, a collected poems and gave her mother permission to publish Sylvia’s letters, he let his sister, Olwyn Hughes, deal with requests from biographers and critics. This resulted in unfair criticism of him and mythologizing of her death at the expense of her poetry.
  • Dmitri Nabokov published an unpublished and unfinished novel his father, Vladimir Nabokov, demanded to be burned, thus acting contrarily to his father’s wishes although in the interests of literature.
  • Poet Lilian Bowes Lyon didn’t make provision for copyright in her will and the current holder is a great nephew. Since her death, a small, limited edition publication, “Uncollected Poems” has been published. All her other work is out of print and only available via second-hand or collectable books dealers.

How to choose a Literary Executor

  • Think about someone who is empathetic to your aims and what you want your writing to achieve,
  • There will be unpublished work and notes and drafts and fragments, would you literary executor be able to recognise what needs preserving and those practice pieces that should be trashed?
  • Do you want your literary executor to preserve your emails and earlier drafts or just finished, publishable work? Your biggest fan may find your shopping lists fascinating but a trusted reader will be able to separate incomplete notes from first drafts,
  • Will your literary executor follow your instructions or will they make their own judgements as to what is worth publishing posthumously and what isn’t?
  • You can choose more than one person. If so, you need to decide whether your literary executors can make decisions independently from each other or whether all of them have to agree and what happens if one or more decide to step down.

Making a Will

Under English law a will may be invalid if it is not drawn up and witnessed properly. Therefore it is always worth making a will with a solicitor. It may seem expensive, but an invalid will may result in your wishes not being complied with.

Decide who you want your non literary assets to go to and who will execute your will. The executor need not be your literary executor, in which case you will need to specify that the executor may not distribute any part of your estate consisting of manuscripts, drafts, books, stories, poetry, drama, published or unpublished in whole or in part or rights to proceeds from any writings or rights to performance but will transfer these to your literary executor. Your solicitor will word this appropriately to your wishes. You can also add specific instructions.

In addition to your will, you can drawn up a letter of wishes. This needn’t be in formal legal language, but gives you the opportunity to outline why you have appointed your chosen literary executor and/or outline your wishes with regard to your literary estate. Letters of wishes are useful where disputes may arise as they show the reasoning behind the way you have drawn up your will.

Consider listing your computer and social media accounts and passwords with your will so your literary executor can gain access. There’s little point in asking someone to try and get any unpublished work published, if they don’t know the password to access it.

Paul Lee died without making a will so I am now his copyright holder. I have edited the poems he left behind and completed a part-finished sequence with a view to organising his second poetry collection which will be published posthumously. Paul Lee’s short stories are available here and a collection of remaining poems not in “The Light Forecast” or his second collection will become available in due course. He has a Facebook page, worth checking for current information and updates.

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Why I won’t be joining the British Fantasy Society (again)

Been laid low by a viral infection, am starting to get over the post-viral fatigue and initially put down two stories, concerning a film director and the British Fantasy Society, to feverish delusions, but, no, apparently they’re real.  One is easy to deal with: Roman Polanski is a highly respected film director, he’s had more than his fair share of tragedy, but he also raped a thirteen year old girl for which he avoided serving time.  He should not have done, neither should it reflect on his film making abilities.  I’ve no idea what “rape-rape” is, but, as a rose is a rose is a rose, so rape is rape is rape, and those who signed this petition should have reflected more first.

On and off over the years, I’ve toyed with the idea of joining the British Fantasy Society.  But hesitated.  I don’t have a problem with the British Fantasy Society having a mostly male membership or that most of them proudly boast they don’t read poetry or even when occasionally one or two of them own up to reading my stories and admit “I really enjoyed this story, against all my initial expectations.”  Not a problem at all.  Despite recent fevers I’m not delusional enough to believe the British Fantasy Society cares whether I’m a member or not.  The only benefits I’d bring are one extra subscription, extra votes for the awards, oh, and a few short stories… 

But this really made me hesitate (again): at FantasyCon held towards the end of September, the British Fantasy Society launched a new book, “Conversation: A Writer’s Perspective. Volume One: Horror.” 

This book is not an anthology of stories.  For that I would expect:-

  • A call for submissions from all British Fantasy Society Members,
  • An editor or editorial team to pick the best stories (preferably anonymously),
  • The best stories to be published in the anthology with author biographies,
  • No double checking that the requisite gender (or other equality criteria) balance had been achieved, just the best stories submitted,
  • And that’s it.

I would expect the best stories submitted to be published because this is a story anthology not an anthology about writers, therefore, who had written the stories isn’t as important as the stories themselves.  And such an anthology will feature fewer female writers simply because fewer women tend to send submissions to editors.  That’s not just true of genre fiction but also applies to non genre fiction and poetry.  Most women seem to prefer the anonymity and distance of submitting to a competition rather than a named editor or editorial team.  Why, I can’t answer as I’m always submitting work to editors.

However, “Conversation: A Writer’s Perspective. Volume One: Horror” is not a story anthology.  It’s a series of the best bits of interviews with writers.  Therefore the focus is on the writers.  Therefore it matters who gets picked.  Because the selected writers are, by implication of the launch happening at FantasyCon, writers whom the British Fantasy Society holds in high regard otherwise they wouldn’t be publishing the book.

But all the writers are male.  Not one female writer is included in “Conversation: A Writer’s Perspective. Volume One: Horror”.

To their credit the British Fantasy Society did apologise for the omission, tellingly mentioning that, “It is disgustingly simple for a man not to notice these things, a blindness to the importance of correct gender representation that I feel embarrassed to have fallen into.”

In his own apology, editor James Cooper says “The criteria for inclusion was simple: I wanted writers who I admired and who had influenced me in some way in the last 20 – 25 years.”  He goes on to say, “A female perspective, of course, would have offered a keen contrast to that presented by many of the male writers…I’d like to finish by adding that I am well aware of most of the female writers working in the field of horror fiction and intended no slight to any of them, though I can easily see how my negligence could be misconstrued.”

This female writer isn’t buying it.  In fact, I’m not joining the British Fantasy Society again.  Not that the British Fantasy Society should care: one lost subscription is nothing.

You are not owed a reading by a published writer

Josh Olson in Village Voice has successfully polarised opinion between new writers who feel that professional writers shouldn’t pull the ladder up behind them but help them on to the next rung of their writing career and professionals who recognised the wannabe demanding a professional reading on a manuscript he knew wanted re-drafting.

Whilst all new writers would love it if a professional writer would look over their manuscript, here are a few things to bear in mind:-

• Writers are busy: very few writers earn enough to live on by writing alone so are already writing around secondary jobs that pay the bills. Finding time to look at a manuscript, particularly if time is unpaid, is going to be hard.
• Approaching a busy writer at a festival or one of their own readings, signing or workshop is like approaching an actor who is in character and on set: the writer’s attention is on the task in hand and distractions are likely to be greeted abruptly.
• Being a successful writer won’t necessarily translate into being a successful teacher.
• Most writers have been approached by someone who thinks they’ve got a great idea. But great ideas are only ideas. A concept is worthless unless it’s written out on paper. Writers are too busy writing to bother talking about writing (unless they’re getting paid to do so). Set yourself a timetable, join a class and write. Otherwise the writer may take your concept and write their version of it (remember there’s no copyright on ideas).
• Most writers have experience of someone thrusting a wodge of paper in their direction and demanding an opinion on where to get it published. But writers need time to consider and respond otherwise you’ll get a deserved knee-jerk reaction that won’t be what you want to hear.

So how do you approach a writer?

• Research – check their blog/website and if it say they don’t read manuscripts, don’t bother them. You are not owed a living, you are not owed a reading.
• If you can’t find out whether or not they read manuscripts, track down some contact details.
• Query first: tell the writer why you like their work and are approaching them, ask if they can spare some time and include a couple of sample poems or the first 500 words of a story/novel and enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope if using the post. Writers like to be read: it’s the whole point of their existence after all. Writers also like proof you read because if you don’t, you’re not a writer and they are wasting their time.
• Wait. Understand you’re not a priority.
• Don’t send your manuscript unless asked. Meanwhile, work on it. Triple check spelling and grammar and present it professionally. Then start work on a new project.
• Remember to thank the writer for their time. You may need to ask them for a blurb later.

Personally I don’t think writers should pull the ladder up after them, but neither do I think newbies should assume they are owed a reading. Getting help from published writers – like getting published – is not a right.

Not all established writers got help when starting. Some did it the hard way: read, wrote, read more, joined a writers’ group, read, kept writing, submitted manuscripts to editors or literary agents, read, kept writing, collected rejection slips, kept writing, submitted new manuscripts, kept writing and worked their way up.

Six Tips for Children’s Writers looking to get published at Random House

A major publisher will (at their option) consider “delaying publication / renegotiate advance / terminate the agreement” if “you act or behave in a way which damages your reputation as a person suitable to work with or be associated with children.”

Clearly Random House aren’t looking for the new Madonna (published by Puffin), Geri Halliwell (published by Macmillian) or Katie Price (published by Bantam) of children’s literature. Equally clearly, they’re ignoring the vital point that the books are more important than the authors. Children look for stories and then want more of the same. They don’t are who wrote them. So what are they trying to achieve?

What advice can be given to children’s writers who do want a contract with Random House?

1. Put your writing career on hold.

2. Get all that damaging behaviour out of your system by becoming a glamour model or reality TV star and get photographed falling out of night clubs revealing even more flesh than your flimsy dress did.

3. Confess that having and/or adopting a child has given your life new meaning and you’re ready to turn over a new chapter.

4. Revive your writing career. Your new notoriety will ensure a publishing contract.

5. Never forget to wear demure tea dresses at book signings and associated publicity.

6. After your second book, fall foul of the appropriate behaviour clause and go running into the arms of another publisher’s marketing department. They’ll love you: you can do self-publicity and they stole you from another major publisher. Your career as a children’s writer is assured, but, remember Random House sent you on your way.

Five Good Reasons Against Vanity Presses

A vanity press is one that operates in one of two ways. Either it accepts a full-length manuscript – whether a novel or collection of poems – praising the author’s work with superlatives and charging such a generous profit margin on publishing the book. Or a vanity press publishes an anthology of ‘poems’ and encourages the authors to not only buy their own copies but encourage friends and relatives to buy copies as well. Some vanity publishers will charge extra for including a brief biography of the author, perhaps in exchange for a certificate stating the author has now joined a library of other writers who have paid for a biography. Both methods make a profit for the publisher who doesn’t actually need to bother marketing or promoting the books. On the face of it, these vanity presses simply fleece the naive and gullible into parting with too much money for books that don’t and won’t sell. So where’s the harm?

Consider these scenarios:-

The Radio Talk Show Host

A local poetry society has produced an anthology of poems selected by an established, respected poet. A caller complains that “none of the poems rhyme” and goes on to say that they were so disgusted with the anthology they threw it away. The DJ asks about the caller’s writing experience. The caller states they have a certificate confirming that they are a member of a library and have been published in many books. The DJ interrupts the caller’s list of books by asking if the caller has attended any writing courses. The caller hesitates, then attempts to list those publications again.

The problem is the local poetry society know full well that those publications are all vanity publications. But does the radio audience? Are listeners thinking “the caller’s vanity published therefore the anthology is worth buying because it’s real, contemporary poetry” or are they thinking “the caller’s got an impressive list of publications and a certificate, so the anthology must be rubbish.”

The Poetry Workshop

An open workshop: simply bring several copies of your poem, hand them round to the attendees, read your poem and wait for feedback. A new attendee produces their poem with a flourish. The other attendees, which include several widely published (properly published) poets with years of experience in critiquing poems. They offer constructive advice, indicating that a couple of lines don’t scan and suggest minor alterations to fix the problem and suggest alteratives to the cliché in the second stanza. The new attendee challenges every single comment, accusing the others of not understanding the point of the poem, of mis-reading the poem, of not understanding what poetry is about. To justify this, the new attendee produces a list of publications and argues the poem is complete and doesn’t need meddling with.

The Mourning Grandmother

A live literature event: several professional writers have read extracts from their published work. During the interval, a woman nudges the arm of one of the poets and pushes several pieces of paper in the poet’s face. “What do you think? Where can I get it published?” asks the grandmother. The poet suggests that the grandmother gives the poet chance to read it first. While the poet is reading, the grandmother turns to the other professional writers asking the same questions. The poet reads what appears to be a biography in what seems to be an attempt at rhyming couplets (“Oh, I must get to the shop/ I remembered, I must buy a mop” being a typical example), however, it becomes clear that this is a heart-felt piece about a much-loved grandchild who died from a terminal illness. The grandmother, who has worked herself into a fluster, is impatiently waiting an answer. “I’ve been published,” she says. “But I couldn’t afford to buy the anthology. So I never saw my poem in print. Where can I publish this one? You’ll know, you’re a writer as well.”

What do you say?

The Local Newspaper

The editor gives a talk and mentions some ideas for maintaining and increasing readership. One of those suggested ideas could be a poetry supplement – a double page spread featuring readers’ poems. An audience member (a novelist) asks what payment will be offered to the poets if the poetry supplement goes ahead. None, is the editor’s response. The novelist points out that locally there are some established published poets who would welcome the opportunity to promote their work to a wider audience and get paid for it so why is no payment forthcoming? The editor’s replies, “Well, there are all these people who write poems and who will pay for copies of the anthologies. So we don’t need to pay them.”

The poetry supplement didn’t go ahead. I don’t think I have to spell out why.

The Local Independent Bookshop

Poetry presses are run on a shoestring and it’s not usual for for a press to be run by one person as a side-line to a full or part time job, a writing career and family commitments. Consequently all poetry presses expect the authors to do as much as they can to promote their books. There’s no marketing department to send out review copies and run promotions. There are no sales representatives to visit bookstores and persuade them to stock copies of the books. Most poets hold readings and workshops to sell their books. Naturally, it helps if poets can persuade their local independent bookshops to take copies on a sale or return basis.

The problem is that bookshops don’t like being approached by poets. The staff are suspicious. The only poetry publishers they’ve heard of are Bloodaxe or Carcanet. They suspect that, because the poet is approaching them rather than the press, the books have been self-published. Actually looking at a copy of the book and reading one or two poems to establish whether the poems are any good or not is too time-consuming and too much like hard work. Their default position is no.

A local bookshop were not interested in a book by a local poet published by an established, respected poetry publisher, despite the poet offering copies of reviews, a list of publishing credits and emphasising membership of a local group of professional writers. The bookshop were not shifting from their default position. But then, the bookshop needed local writers for a series of readings. The poet volunteered, sending copies of reviews, publishing credits and mentioning membership of a local group of professional writers. Needing to fill slots, the bookshop said yes. The poet turned up on time and read. The bookshop realised this poet was real and offered to stock their book.

Vanity presses do harm and their reach is beyond the naive and gullible and impacts on genuine writers.

Related articles:

Self-published: to review or not to review?

If you don’t have time to read, you’re not a writer

Common faults in short stories

If you don’t have time to read…

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write,” Stephen King.

I’d love to take this quote and turn it into a banner for displaying at workshops and literature events, especially where the participants include:-

1. Automatic Writers

The “Oh, I’m just the vessel, I write it as it comes” crowd who bring their pieces to workshops, fail to comment on anyone else’s work and lap up comments on their own. However, as their work appeared intact, they won’t actually bother to edit or refine it.

2. Prolific Writers

Like the guy who boasted he wrote 300 poems in one year and wanted me to read every single one of them. Would he read one of mine in return? He’s probably still bombarding editors now, but I’ve never seen his name in print.

3. Hyper-Sensitive Writers

The “Oh, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” crowd who want a slap on the back just for writing something. The idea that just writing something is only the start, is so alien you can provoke tears or sulking tantrums at the mere suggestion their magnum opus might benefit from a little judicial editing, like putting an apostrophe in the correct place to take the ambiguity out of the first line.

4. Certificated Writers

Not because of insanity, but because they were willing to pay to get their pieces and/or biography published in vanity presses as so puff themselves up as “real poets” (whatever they are) to justify their doggerel.

5. Writers of the Romantic Ideal

“Oh, I never read, my writing might become tainted”. That’ll be tainted by taste, skill, craft and an exclusive quality called readability, will it?

Writing isn’t a mystic ability divined by those with a true sense of calling (that would exclude me for a start) and is pretty useless if it’s unreadable. There aren’t any short cuts. The only way to learn to write is to read. If you don’t read, you’re not a writer.