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.

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“Mother ” is not a Job Description

How do I describe myself? Writer, marketing assistant, poet, information assistant, short story writer, web copy writers, reviewer, website manager, blogger, web article writer, database manager, writing competition adjudicator, marketing researcher, mother? Does it matter? Look at the list again and pick the odd one out.

Shirley Dent’s “Writing mothers need our help” is right, and in her reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” as being about that feeling of isolation, being cut off from the world simply because you’ve had a baby. No one asks a man if he’s going to work part-time after hearing he’s going to be a father. I was accused of being “scarily efficient” because I wanted to get my newborn daughter into a sleeping routine so I could plan to write. Inconsistently snatching ten minutes here, half an hour there doesn’t work. Nurseries, schools and childminders still default to contacting mum if there’s a problem: after all she’s not doing real work therefore she can afford to be interrupted.

Actually, she can’t, because being interrupted and either having to book annual leave at very short notice, irritating colleagues in the process, or having to somehow find a way of making up the time taken out of a working day to deal with a minor problem completely screws up the household chores and writing plans. Not all mothers have access to a nearby, supportive network of friends and/or family who can make up the childcare gaps and that impacts on writing time. A sick child will always want to be with a parent (usually mum) but looking after one is never a fun way to spend your annual leave. And if you’d planned on using that annual time to write, it’s your writing that gets sacrificed. How you do combine a selfless activity (mothering) with a selfish one (writing) when everyone wants to write you off as solely a mother?

The odd one out, by the way, is mother: all the others are job descriptions.

When can I call myself a Writer?

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America define “professional writer” as “someone who makes a living from selling their writing”. But that excludes every single poet in the UK since selling their poetry would exclude money made poetry readings, teaching creative writing and being a poetry editor which is how those who don’t have a day job do it. So clearly there has to be a better definition. James Van Pelt in The Fix suggests other way of defining the professional writer:-

1. Consistently produces work

Where poetry is concerned, word counts (how consistently do prose writers advise write 200/500 words a day?) are useless. But certainly writers, write. Sure they might talk about it and no one makes a better procrasinator than a writer who’s avoiding the actual work of putting words on the page, preferably the right words in the right order, but the key difference between a wannabe and a writer is that the latter actually writes rather than talks about their magnum opus that will be produced sometime tomorrow (and all we know tomorrow never comes).

2. Tries to sell the work

Yep, actually prints out poems and covering letters and posts them off to editors. Note the plurals. Currently have 40 poems on editors’ desks at the moment and will post off a further ten this week. Actually it’s unusual for me to have less than 50 out at any one time. With magazines running at 98 – 99% rejection rates, it’s the only way to get published. And I did get an acceptance today (see, it works).

3. Tries to improve knowledge in the field

Read, read and keep reading. Ask for book tokens as presents, subscribe to as many magazines as you can afford and join a library. No writer can skip the reading.

4. Networks

Not so easy when getting out involves finding a babysitter and a half-hourly bus service that stops at 6:30 pm anyway. That’s why I love the internet: I can network without leaving home, or someone complaining about my taste in music.

5. Keeps up with the field

How else are you going to know that submitting your experimental, edgy, urban-noir poetry to Poetry Review is a waste of time? Save postage, time and effort. Read reviews (some of mine are available at Sphinx).

6. Behaves professionally

Strangely I prefer it when editors send “never darken my post box ever again” responses. The ones I hate are the “liked your work but am not using it [without giving the reason for not using it]”. With the former I know where I stand. The latter always encourage me to try again. But I’d never threaten an editor. Most of them are unpaid, trying to fit in producing a magazine around day jobs and family life and get more poems in a week than they can publish in a year (hence the high rejection rates).

I’ve never flame a reviewer either. Politely pointing out a typo/technical error is OK. But expecting a reviewer, who is outside of your target audience, to love your work isn’t. Love or loathe them, reviewers do have the right to their own opinion. And sometimes they get it wrong. If a certain music critic hated an album, I’d rush out and buy it. If he loved an album I knew to put it on my “never, ever buy” list. I never criticised him for hating my favourite bands. I appreciated his consistency of opinion and his ability to inform my music buying. Negative reviews can have positive effects.

7. Pays forward, ie gives advice and offers constructive criticism to newbies

This is how I met my husband. So I guess I qualify. I am a writer.