Combining Writing and a Day Job

The clickbait headline, “As celebrity books boom, professional authors are driven out of full time work“, isn’t an accurate portrayal of the article where novelist Donal Ryan explains why he is returning to a day job in the Irish Civil Service despite having three bestselling novels in five years. It’s not actually the fault of celebrities and the article does point out that the average earnings for writers is polarising – as with with most wages – the gap between the high earners and lower earners is getting wider. Nearly 10% of writers earn as much as an MP (£74692) and 50% earn less than £10500 (the average wage in the UK is £26500 to put those figures in context). In a world where celebrities can fall out of favour quickly, it’s hardly surprising that agents urge them to make money while they can and I’ve not seen anyone suggest that celebrity perfumes are putting perfumers out of business.

Consequently Donal Ryan isn’t the only writer with a day job. Ultimately, does it matter?

T S Eliot and Wallace Stevens are frequently trotted out as poets who held down day jobs whilst writing. Search engines will find reams of articles on “good” day jobs for writers. Some argue for a writing-related job such as teaching creative writing or working in advertising. Others suggest jobs should have as little to do with writing as possible but offer life experience such as customer-facing jobs (although most customer-facing jobs offer little time to interact with customers and, in some cases, penalise workers who deviate from a standard script). Others suggest physical work as a counter to time spent sitting and writing. Some writers like the structure offered by having to work around a day job. Others point out that applying for bursaries, grants, funding and writers-in-residence opportunities is almost a full-time job.

Let’s not forget that Wallace Stevens got his secretary to type out poems that were either dictated or scribbled on scraps of paper. T S Eliot had lengthy lunch breaks where he could organise literary meetings and didn’t have to work in an open plan office. These points are not insignificant. Writers who successfully combine day jobs and writing do so because:

  • They have some control over the hours they work. Those who write in the morning negotiate a later start or pick a job that starts in the afternoon/evening. Those who write in the evening do the opposite.
  • The job offers space to think either in breaks where a writer can find a quiet spot or in the commute.
  • The job offers a regular salary that covers the bills. Freelancing or applying for frequent short-term jobs with all the associated insecurity creates stress and anxiety which are not conductive to writing. Short term stress, such as meeting a deadline, can be a useful counter to procrastination and help get the writing done, but prolonged, ongoing stress isn’t just bad to writing it creates ill-health.
  • Their jobs offer the chance to meet people without having to stick to a script who might provide inspiration for writing.
  • They operate strong boundaries between work and writing, albeit with some flexibility, so that one doesn’t overlap with or interfere with the other. That might still mean sacrificing some writing time to meet a work project deadline or being able to book time off work to attend a literature event.

The obvious disadvantage combining a day job and writing is less time to write, less time to research and less time to practice writing skills. There’s no time to spend an afternoon writing a sestina just so a poet can really understand the form. Research has to be disciplined and focused so there’s less time for interesting side lines and diversions. Time spent writing really has to be spent writing and not frittered away on cat videos (although cat videos are useful if they are a way of breaking through a tricky plot issue or figuring out whether the third stanza should really be the fourth stanza. Social media is not evil.)

When you’re juggling a day job and writing or struggling to make enough from writing to pay the bills, it’s easy to become envious of celebrities who have no writing experience yet manage to pick a book deal. But they are the wrong target. J K Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (UK title) was published in 1997 alongside Philip Pullman’s “The Subtle Knife”, Jacqueline Wilson’s “Girls in Love”, Rick Riordan’s “Big Red Tequila” and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York’s “Budgie the Little Helicopter”. Guess which of those writers isn’t writing today?


Write On a Leicester Writers Showcase February 2017 Lost and Found

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How Real Life does Poetry have to be?

Last year a competition asked for poems in response to photos showing the immediate aftermath of a disaster and again after four years of re-building work.  One of the poets involved commented that they had hesitated before writing their poem because they hadn’t been there or known anyone directly involved.  They felt awkward and worried about the authenticity of their poem.  There have also been discussions at Magma Poetry about how poets can make it real despite not directly experiencing events and whether we should let our knowledge of writers’ biographies influence our reading of their poems.  Does it matter?

No one expects crime writers to have committed the crimes they are writing about.  Readers expect crime writers to have done their research and create empathetic characters so the readers can ‘experience’ the crime alongside the victims and try and figure out who the murderer was before the end of the book.  Generally novelists are not expected to write autobiography although there is an understanding that some events or characters that end up in novels may have roots in the writer’s life.

Poetry is also fiction.  So why should poetry have to be real?  Why does the question of “how do poets make an event they have not experienced authentic” even arise?

Most contemporary poetry is written in first person, whereas novels are generally written in third person.  There are exceptions, but most poems use an “I did/ felt/ saw/ dreamt/ experienced…” narrative and it is easy for readers to therefore assume that the poem’s “I” is the poet.  The assumption then becomes that the poet is writing directly from autobiography and poetry is no longer fiction.

This creates two problems.  Firstly it can create misunderstandings.  I know of someone who read Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” as taking place in the aftermath of a suicide attempt because he knew the poet had attempted suicide.  What he didn’t know was that “Tulips” was written after a routine operation to remove an appendix, which puts the poem in a completely different light. 

Secondly it shifts the focus from the poem to the poet and encourages the view that poems about, say, the war in Iraq are only authentic if the poet has served a tour of duty.  Or that knowing a poet has served a tour of duty in Iraq makes that poet’s poem more authentic than a poem written by someone who’s never been to Iraq but done their research.  This takes us backward to the view that crime writers should have committed the crimes they write about, which has already been dismissed.  Surely the poem matters?

Poems need to be able to stand on their own merit.  It doesn’t matter whether the poet has direct or indirect experience of what they are writing poems about.  What matters is whether the poem is any good or not.  Good poems can come from indirect, researched experience and bad poems can come from direct experience and vice versa.  Incomplete research will show, but poets with a distance from the event they are writing about have the advantage of being able to put the event in context and focus on making the poem.  The key focus has to be on the poem, not the poet, doesn’t it?

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Coping with Rejections

If you want your writing to be published, accept rejections

 

Thanks to Meg Gardiner for posting on this topic.  She’s right: rejections don’t stop just because you’re published.  There’s no magic “yes, I’ve got my novel or poetry collection accepted so I won’t have to deal with rejections ever again” moment.  Rejections don’t stop. 

Rejections will only stop if you stop sending submissions to editors and when you stop doing that, you stop being a writer.

Acceptances are so dependent on a combination of factors: the right manuscript landing on the right editor’s desk when the editor’s looking for a manuscript just like that, is in the mood to read submissions thoroughly and recognises that the manuscript they are reading is the perfect fit, ie such a narrow window of opportunity, it’s a wonder acceptances happen at all.  But even an acceptance doesn’t guarantee publication.  Editors move on, their replacement may decide not to go ahead with publication, a new priority is set turning acceptance to rejection or magazines and publishers go under meaning publication won’t happen.  There’s more to getting published than an acceptance letter, contract and waiting for publication.

Writers at any and all stages of their career have to accept rejections.  Whilst acceptances that do turn into publication are always very welcome, rejections aren’t always bad news:

·        Rejections aren’t personal: you aren’t being rejected, just that particular piece by that particular editor.

·        Rejections aren’t always a reflection on the standard of your writing, often they’re down to lack of space, prior acceptance of a similar piece or an incoming editor clearing an outgoing editor’s in-tray.

·        Rejections stop writers becoming lazy.  Doesn’t matter where you are in your writing career, every submission should be to a professional standard.

 

Doesn’t make rejections easier to take, although they can be reduced.  Research your markets: only submit work to editors who are likely to be interested in your work, check submission guidelines and submit your work in the right format and during the reading period (where applicable).  A magazine that focuses on experimental poetry is never going to take your traditional sonnet no matter how good a sonnet it is.  If a magazine only takes postal submissions, don’t submit via email.  If an editor asks for names not to appear on submitted work, take your name off and submit a covering letter or sheet with a list of titles and your contact details.  If a magazine states it has a reading period of May to September, don’t submit in April – you won’t be first in the reading queue, you’ll be automatically rejected.  If the guidelines state that you have to wait a year after an acceptance before submitting again, wait a year – it may be tempting to re-try an editor who has already accepted a poem, but you’ll be automatically rejected for not following guidelines if you don’t wait.  If an editor asks for email submissions as an attachment, don’t paste your poems into the body of the email and note what format the attachment should be in (if in doubt use .rtf). 

 

For a writer, a submission is like a job application and should be treated as such.  Just like job applications, where the recruiter often reads them looking for reasons to reject such as miss-spelt words, bad grammar, coffee stains, crumpled paper and a general unprofessional approach because they have one vacancy and over 50 applicants; so editors overwhelmed with submissions will look for a reason to reject you.  Don’t give them one.

Whilst you need to keep a record or what you’ve sent where (to avoid simultaneous submissions and prevent sending a published piece to an editor who will only consider unpublished work), you don’t need to keep rejection slips.  If an editor’s taken the trouble to scrawl a comment, note the comment and put it aside to read later.  Recycle all rejection slips (they make useful cat litter tray lining).  If there’s no comment, assume your work was simply not on the right editor’s desk at the right time and send it elsewhere. 

Do keep all you acceptance letters, positive comments and feedback in a handy place and refer to them frequently, especially when rejections pile up.

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Writing Blurbs

Blurbs are those wonderful pieces of hype stuck on the back cover or tucked into a press release to urge people to buy the book.  Most publishers rely on other writers they’ve published to supply blurbs, which isn’t always ideal as sharing a publisher doesn’t necessarily mean the blurb-writers share the publisher’s enthusiasm for the new book.

There are no hard and fast rules but a blurb must:-

1.   Avoid cliché – it implies the book is clichéd.

2.   Avoid absolute hyperbole – no matter how superb the book is it is not and never will be the best ever written.

3.   Convey the contents of the book – people need to know what it’s about and why they should read it.

4.   Avoid questions that give potential readers a get-out before they’ve decided to buy – eg don’t ask “do you what to know why she got a call after midnight?” as the potential reader can say no and pick up another book that says “That call after midnight shocked her into discovering her husband was not who she thought he was.”

5.   Avoid talking about the writer themselves – it implies the blurb-writer didn’t like the book.

6.   Be short – using twitter as a drafting tool is helpful!

Here’s one used by Original Plus:

Employing strong visual pictures … many of Emma Lee’s poems stick in the mind’s eye long after the book has been closed. … Emma Lee’s poems are sharp, spare, and economic, without missing out on the important details.

Can a Bad Review End a Writing Career?

Writers love praise and hate criticism (doesn’t everyone?!), but can a bad review end a writing career?

What’s a Good Book Review?

• Clear, concise writing about the book being reviewed.
• Mentions the book’s strengths (and weaknesses if there are any).
• Lets the review venture an opinion (whether positive or negative).

What’s a Bad Book Review?

• Waffles at length about the writer/writer’s career/other books by the writer, anything but the book being reviewed.
• Fails to give the review readers a clear idea of whether or not they would buy the book under review.
• Personally attacks the writer and/or publisher, continues a personal vendetta or is a flame masquerading as a review.

I both write and review. As I reviewer I know what it’s like to receive a book you know has been worked on and accepted by an editor (I’m ignoring self-published books here). It’s actually OK for a reviewer not to like a book. It is possible to admire someone’s writing but not personally like it. I stick to a formula and try to be fair: mention what the book is about or give an impression of the style of the book, mention the book’s strengths, mention where the book’s not so strong and give an opinion. Overall the aim is to let review readers know whether they want to read the book being reviewed or not.

As a writer I know what it’s like to finally hold a book with your name on the spine, anticipating reviews. It takes courage to put something you’ve worked on, sweated over, checked, edited, re-written, edited again out there in the public arena, whether that’s at a reading or via publication.

But can a bad review wreck a writing career?

Tess Gerritsen at murderati thinks so. She cites the example of a debut author getting slated by an influential publication and cites a further example of Stephen King receiving an review from the same publication that almost made him stop writing entirely.

A bad review can be disheartening, can make writer stop and think whether writing actually was for them. But neither Tess Gerritsen or Stephen King gave up writing. True they paused, and used that pause to access whether writing was actually worth it. But they didn’t stop.

How to respond to a bad review?

Who wrote it?

Was the review writer a member of your target audience? If not, their negative opinion reaffirms that they are not your target audience so they don’t ‘get’ your book. Does the reviewer have a reputation for being constantly negative or deliberately controversial? In which case the problem lies with the reviewer, not the book. Some critics really do believe their job is to criticise and never praise.

Was it a one-off?

If one member of your target audience doesn’t like your book: that’s OK. That’s part of what makes us all individuals. If more members of your target audience don’t like your book: that’s a problem. Time to re-think your marketing strategy and find another target or marketing niche. One bad review won’t make any difference.

Where was it published?

If the bad review was in an influential trade journal, it’s annoying, but has it actually had an impact on book trade orders and/or sales? Does the publication have a reputation for a negative approach to reviews or particularly dislike the genre or style of the type of book you’ve written?

Is it accurate?

If the reviewer has completely missed the point: the reviewer’s at fault. If the reviewer doesn’t like the genre you write in, remember they have the right not to like your book.

If the review is full of typos, suggests you’re writing a historical novel when it’s set in the future or has misquoted where there are quotes, consider writing to the editor pointing out the factual errors. But do not criticise the reviewer’s opinion.

Strike First

Encourage friends and trusted readers to post reviews on sites that take book reviews. Find some blogging readers who could review advance copies of your book. Study magazines and find out which editors and reviewers positively review books like yours, ensure they get review copies. By getting the positive reviews out first, you dampen the effects of any negative ones.

If a review does trigger a bout of writer’s block, take time out to consider where you want to go with your writing. It’s not easy to take a step back and consider a review objectively. But if that review is not accurate or is clearly not a review at all (because it’s a flame/vendetta/so badly written it should never have been published), it’s not worth paying it any attention. Ask people you trust to read the review and get their opinions.

A bad review cannot wreck a writing career. It can make you pause for thought, but if you were really made to be a writer, it won’t be long before the next idea/plot strand/theme/issue prods and demands to be written.

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Should Writers read reviews of their Writing?

A subject touched on by both Meg Gardiner and Tess Gerritsen and raised indirectly at a recent poetry reading where one poet punctuated her poems with anxious looks towards the audience, as if seeking approval before reading on.

Three Reasons Not to Read Reviews 

 

1. The book’s already been published and can’t be changed.

True, but a perceptive, constructive comment could inform future work, especially if it’s part of series.

2. It’s a flame by an anonymous troll on a site such as Amazon.

Then it’s not a review, it’s a flame by an anonymous troll… and not worth responding to. It’s difficult not to take a scathing attack personally, but if the person writing it didn’t have sufficient courage of their convictions to use their own name, then treat them as a playground bully and ignore them.

3. The reviewer said nasty things.

The world would be a very boring place if everyone loved your books. Reviewers don’t really have that huge an impact on sales – most people buy books because:

• they like your books

• their friend likes your books

• your book was on special offer

• they picked it up by mistake

• they were stuck for something to read and a librarian suggested it

• they were bored and a copy was left on the bus/train/etc

• a reviewer they liked, liked it

• a reviewer they hate, hated it.

Three Reasons to Read Reviews

 

1. A good review is a good ego boost.

It’s also useful publicity.

2. Positive comments encourage more writing because it’s reassuring to know someone’s reading you.

3. The review said good things.

Sometimes unintentionally. One of my stories was described as “an extended myspace confessional albeit better written“. It was meant as a snark but his comment actually said “contemporary, modern story” and he thought the writing was good (“better” implies “good”) so I took it as a compliment.

Ultimately whether a writer reads their reviews or not is a personal decision. I’ve never had a bad review, but, equally, I’ve never had one that’s been pure praise. That’s good: I’m lucky my reviews have been balanced. However, I’ve never self-published. Everything of mine that has been published has been approved by an editor. An editor who has had confidence to say “this is worth publishing”. In poetry, where rejection rates run at 98%, that editor’s approval counts and rates far higher than the opinion of a reviewer. Even so, it’s hard to remind yourself that editorial approval matters, anonymous flames don’t when it’s your own work under attack. Writers deserve robust reviews by reviewers who are constructive. 

But the worst review of all is no review: flamers take note.  No reviews means no one’s reading the book.

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Magic Kitten versus Katie Price’s Perfect Ponies

Magic Kitten children\'s books by Sue BentleyPerfect Ponies by Katie PriceOr is the rise of the ghostwriter a good thing? Former children’s laureate Michael Rosen, in The Guardian, thinks so, “If you sit down and write something and it’s taken you years, and then someone comes along who’s a model or a dancer and seems to have all this money behind them and didn’t even do the work, then people feel resentful and they feel it devalues what they’re doing. What I feel like saying to fellow authors is, if you feel anxious, you just have to try harder.”

There’s no denying that Katie Price’s publicity and the brand she has created around her public persona has shifted the books and earnt money for her ghostwriter. But why do I feel uneasy that all the people who buy and/or read her books would not have the slightest interest in meeting the writer; the person who developed the characters, developed the plots, wrote, edited and re-wrote the stories?

At a time when writers are finding it hard to earn money from their work (The Society Authors report that the typical British author earns 33% less than the national average wage) and when poets get shot down in flames for daring to complain of breach of copyright when one of their poems is posted on-line without permission (or payment), should they join the rising band of ghostwriters?

Michael Rosen suggests “try harder”. I already know it doesn’t matter how hard I try, Katie Price won’t take me on as a ghostpoet. Her business acumen is acute enough to realise there’s no money in poetry. But her business acumen knows that books are a good thing to add to her brand, and, for that to happen, she needs a good ghostwriter.

But where do ghostwriters come from? Writers don’t emerge fully-formed. Writing is part talent, part craft and has to be practised and learnt. You can’t hire a magic kitten to cast a spell on the celebrity to make them a good writer. Poorly-written books will eventually stop selling, no matter how strong the brand. Perhaps when celebrities have exhausted the existing pool of adult and children’s ghostwriters, they might turn their brand to poetry. But I’d need more powerful magic from a great big cat (a white lion?) to bring that one about.

Ideally, publishers would use celebrity-branded books to fund new writers. Then the “Magic Kitten” series could sit alongside “Katie Price’s Perfect Ponies” and writers wouldn’t feel so patronised by a former children’s laureate.