Sunday 9 June 2024

Submissions and perseverance

On Facebook recently, Judy Birkbeck wrote "Yay! Another of my short stories has been shortlisted by the Bournemouth Writing Prize. Made my day. ... It's encouraged me to keep going. I've submitted this story 61 times! Perseverance is key."

I can't match 61, though a few of my pieces are approaching 20 rejections. I think some of my best stories have been repeatedly rejected. I send them out to the best places first, so they're going to be rejected often even if they're reasonable. And they might be bad - I may be attached to them for non-literary reasons.

I've 2 poems out that have been rejected 14 and 17 times. I'll keep trying, because sometimes perseverance works. Sam Gardiner, who won the National Poetry Competition long ago, told me that the poem had previously been rejected by many magazines.

Earlier this month I got £50 for a 250-word piece that's been rejected 15 times (mostly in a longer form). It was a competition where the pieces were read out and judged by the audience on the night, with Zoom participation.

I recently had a short story accepted at the 17th attempt. I've a story (neurodivergent female 1st-person PoV) that's been rejected 19 times. I'm about to send it out again. I'm giving up on another piece of prose that's been rejected 12 times - it's dawned on me that it's not very good though I can see why I like it.

Monday 3 June 2024

IIse Pedler at CB1

On June 3rd, Ilse Pedlar was the main act, reading from her Seren book, her prize-winning pamphlet, a competition anthology, her phone, and sheets of paper. She concentrated on her main themes (vet, step-mother) at first, before reading some newer Lake District pieces. Her books seemed to sell well.

There were 17 open-mic readers too, so no lack of variety.

Friday 31 May 2024

Flash collections

On my Reviews of Flash collections page I have links to write-ups of most of the Flash books I've read. A third of them are anthologies, which is an indication, I think, that it's still an evolving market.

Who buys Flash books? At least with anthologies the contributors might be buyers, but how many of those people will buy single-author books? Who are the trusted publishers?

Reader expectations are maturing now that people are no longer buying only books written by friends. How good should a book be before it's publishable? I think the bar is rising. Should it have sections, like many poetry books have? Will readers accept a mix of prose-poems, dribbles and narrative Flash all in the same book? Are Flash pamphlets viable? Are more Flash books being published by non-Flash-specialist publishers?

At the moment I'd guess that only Flash writers buy (or know about) Flash books. If the customer base expands, are poets or short story writers the most likely additions? Books of short stories and poems aren't flying off the shelves either, but at least the Flash market is expanding. I think Flash might appeal to (narrative) poets who feel that modern poetry (obscure, or "exploring issues") has abandoned them.

Sunday 12 May 2024

Isobel Dixon

On the evening 11th May I listened to Isobel Dixon read outside at Magdalene. I liked what she read, and the Q+A session was useful.

Looking back on my write-ups (which I don't really trust) of her books it seems that I wasn't always convinced that her poetic rendering added enough to the content. I think in a poetry reading it's useful to read pieces with relatable content, so at readings such poems aren't a problem. And the layouts seemed to be trying too hard (also not a problem at readings)

Thursday 2 May 2024

2024 so far

A third of the year has gone and I've written 1 poem. Prose is gushy in comparison - 2 nearly-finished stories and 4 completed Flash pieces - about 5k words. Nothing written this year has been published yet. Old stuff is being accepted about fortnightly. A few of these pieces are old favourites of mine.

Victoria Moul, reviewing a Poetry Review issue, wrote "I think a new reader would be forgiven for concluding that if you want to write a straightforward poem, which uses language in a fairly conventional way, or has any significant narrative content, then you do so in prose." I think I do this nowadays, sending the result to prose/Flash (rather than poetry) magazines.

Sunday 28 April 2024

Show not tell? Nouns not verbs?

The novel I'm currently listening to has "her eyes sad but resolute". The point-of-view is of somebody else, so the author knew that "She was sad but resolute" would be wrong, but giving eyes such expressive ability isn't the solution, unless the observer's analytical abilities are being mocked.

The same book has "she had a flirty smile on her face". Why the noun "smile" rather than the verb "smiled"? The phrase "on her face" is redundant anyway. Perhaps the answer is that with nouns you can use adjectives rather than adverbs, and "flirty" sounds better than "flirtily"?

Another book has "There was an audible trembling in his voice". I don't know why "audible" is there but I'm more puzzled by why the noun "trembling" is preferred to the verb "trembled". What's wrong with just "His voice trembled"?

Yet another book has "a scream came out of her mouth" rather than "she screamed". Perhaps there's an attempt at distancing, of making the scream more real by making it into an object. A potential advantage of this construction is that extra verbs and adjectives can be used - "a stifled scream burst from her mouth" maybe.

Saturday 20 April 2024

Free Verse bookfair 2024

This was my first visit to London since Covid. There were at least 70 stalls this year. I bought "Southwords 45" (from Cork, Ireland), "The Cold Store" (Elisabeth Sennitt Clough) and saw some familiar faces. In the LRB bookshop I bought "Reverse Engineering II" (a story collection with explanations from the authors). Given the cost of postage nowadays, I didn't need to buy many books to nearly cancel out the cost of the train ticket.

Sunday 14 April 2024

Short story collection sales

If poets think the publishing world is against them, they should consider the story writers. Conan Doyle could earn enough to live just by writing short stories. More recently, John Updike (thanks to the New Yorker) could sometimes (with the help of reviewing) be in that condition too. The trend has been down ever since.

  • In the UK in 2002 "fewer than 25 books of short stories were produced by mainstream publishers. And two thirds were by writers from abroad" according to Debbie Taylor (Mslexia, Spring 2003).
  • In 2017, The Bookseller announced that "Short story anthologies are enjoying a boom in sales, rising by almost 50% in value, to reach their highest level in seven years." though Hanks and Jojo Moyes accounted for 22% of those sales. The Guardian's Complete fiction: why 'the short story renaissance' is a myth article gives more details.
  • Sales were static during the pandemic, while sales of novels increased.
  • In 2022 Miranda Bryant wrote a Guardian article, "Tales of the unexpected: the surprise boom in UK short stories". In it Nicholas Royle points out that "Salt Publishing, Comma Press and Nightjar Press, and prizes such as the Sunday Times short story award, the BBC national short story award, the Manchester fiction prize and the Edge Hill short story prize ... have played a key role."

Comprehensive statistics are hard to come by. e-books and freely available Web-published pieces confuse the issue. The stats probably don't cover books sold at readings, but that's where poets have another advantage over story writers - there aren't many story readings.

In some countries (Eire perhaps) things may be better though when I was last wandering in Paris (2019) I got the impression that short stories were struggling there too. This photo of Maison Poésie's front window, isn't very clear, so let me translate the little comic strip.

  1. Short story
  2. "Would you like to publish my short stories?"
    "No"
  3. The End

Alice Munro's Nobel success, Tom Hanks' book of stories, and Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Visit from the Goon Squad" don't seem to have changed public opinion.

Sometimes story writers try to make their collections look like novels. A more recent trend is to try to attract readers of Flash by having a mix of short and long pieces. Claire-Louise Bennett's "Pond" combines both of those ploys. Stories from The White Review, Stinging Fly, Harper's Magazine and New Yorker form an episodic novel of sorts. Several of the pieces are less than a page. Did the trick work? I don't know, but it was widely and well reviewed.

Sunday 7 April 2024

Stuart Henson and Martin Figura

On 4th April I attended an Engage afternoon event at Huntingdon Library with about 20 others. Stuart Henson spent about half the time reading some of his poetry. He began by saying he was happy for people to comment and query at any time. The rest was Q&A and discussion. He was described in the announcement as a local poet (ancestors many generations back being local too) and read some poems inspired by local/family details. An Eric Gregory Award winner, he's published several books, mostly with Shoestring. He illustrated the various things poetry can do. I enjoyed the session and liked the format.

On 7th April I attended CB1 to hear Martin Figura, who read at CB1 in 1991. It was his 4th gig in 4 days. I liked best his poem about an imaginary meeting with Larkin. There were about 40 people (including his son) at the event, about half of them reading.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Paying for help with writing in the UK

Maybe you've never had a poem or story published. Maybe you've already had a book published. Whatever level you're at, you may feel that your creative development need an injection of pace. What options offer value for money? Options include

Writers Groups

Local writers groups might offer monthly meeting for maybe £20/year. Quality is variable, and you need to give as much crit as you get. There are online forums too.

Evening classes

Quality is variable, and like writers groups, they take months to have an impact.

Specialised Courses

The Poetry School is an example of an organisation that offers 1-day sessions (e.g."Short order poetry to go" - 72 pounds) and courses (e.g. "The Construction of the Poem " - a 30-week course)

Residential courses

The most well-known is Arvon - about £700/week. There are many beneficial side-effects. Immersion for a week in a writing environment helps people to start thinking of themselves as "writers". See the post by John Foggin

Festivals

Some festivals/conferences offer workshops as well as celeb events

Critiques

Several magazines, often as part of the standard submission process, offer critiques with quick turn-arounds. See for example https://theshortstory.co.uk/critiques/

Degrees

It's not so much the academic surroundings that attract late-comers -

  • It's a way of finding a peer-group which might last you way beyond the length of the course.
  • You may appreciate the disciplined approach, the lack of distraction, the easy availability of help.
  • Unless you show you're serious about writing, your family won't take you seriously and won't give you space.
  • A Masters is a way to validate your skills - even if it doesn't help you write better, the certificate at the end will open doors.
  • It will show the grandchildren that you're not over the hill yet.

See Should I do a Creative Writing MA? (Emma Darwin)

Books

Many "how to write" books have exercises. A good example is "52: Write a Poem a Week. Start Now. Keep Going." by Jo Bell (Nine Arches Press, 2015)

Consultants/Mentorship

Mentoring is about $40/hour, and 60,000 words cost at least £400 to be evaluated. Regional Arts Boards can sometimes help with funding or at least offer recommendations. Even if you find a reputable company, you won't know beforehand how useful their comments will be, but even their help with the all-important first few paragraphs may make all the difference. In an advert I recently read, "Established, acclaimed authors offer aspiring writers ten hours of consultation time, usually spread out over a year. In between, the mentor reads the work for a further ten hours" for £2600.

DIY

Write your own syllabus for the year, combining some of the elements above. If you have the self-discipline you could plan a year-long programme tailored to your own needs. Creative writing syllabuses are online to give you ideas. Festivals, readings, short residential workshops, private study, and competition deadlines can be time-tabled into a year of activity. The NaPoWriMo might be useful stimulation, or competition deadlines. Holidays can be integrated into the scheme too.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Artists and writers

This is how a now dead artist I knew left his studio. Clean.

This was during our Turkey trip I think. Note that he's making the mosaic with the back uppermost - he can't see what he's making.

How I drafted the graphics for my computer game a long time ago.

If only I could make short stories that look like this - baffling until you look at them the right way.

An extract from my notebook. All my poems and most of my stories begin here.

This is on sale at Science/Medicine museums - it looks like a syringe though it's a pen. I'll leave you to work out the symbolism.

Sitting in Roald Dahl's chair, hoping for inspiration. He used a brush on the felt table-top to start his writing sessions.

Looking through my photo archive for this blog post I found this photo. I think the tookbox is upstairs. Maybe I should open it again.

Thursday 14 March 2024

It's personal

By default in poems, "I" is the poet. In a poetry book with several poems about "mother", it's tempting to assume they're all about the same person. These assumptions aren't always correct. At the very least, names might be changed to protect the innocent. Details might be adjusted to improve a poem - events might be conflated or exaggerated; surplus details and people might be edited out.

Policies vary. In "Material" by Ros Barber (Anvil, 2008) there's little to stop readers identifying the persona with the poet. The Acknowledgements page ends with "Finally, apologies are due to all those individuals who find themselves incorporated as 'material' when they would have chosen otherwise"

Robert Lowell used quotes from letters by (ex) wife Elizabeth Hardwick when writing "The Dolphin". He did so without permission. When he changed details for aesthetic reasons, it sometimes made Hardwick look worse than she was. The book won a Pulitzer.

Perhaps more writers should wear a tee-shirt like I got one Xmas. Don't worry - I don't write novels. Anyway, I'm careful when writing about people living or dead. More than once I've shown someone a poem/story, asking if I could publish it. And the "I" in my poems is often not me even when the details come from my life.

Thursday 7 March 2024

3 events this week

On Sunday I went to CB1 - live, open-mic poetry in Cambridge. Maybe 30 people were there. My favourites were a poem about grief (with mirrors and boxes) and a comic piece that kept coming up with good lines (I wish I'd written some down). I read a 250 word piece of Flash - maybe the shortest piece of the night.

On Monday I Zoomed into a Milton Keynes Lit Fest event - a discussion about Flash with Electra Rhodes and Jupiter Jones. About 70 people attended. Rhodes gave some useful checklists of ways to improve a text. One idea is to use vocabulary from one domain (e.g. knitting) for a piece that has nothing to do with that domain. What most struck me was the number of Flash pieces she's published given that she only started writing Flash during Covid. I manage about 5 published Flashes a year.

Tonight, Thursday, I Zoomed into a Matthew Stewart reading (Fire River Poets) - about 20 people, half of them doing open-mic. There was a short discussion after about Factual Truth vs Poetic Truth, and the influence of Larkin. When Larkin wrote "Every poem starts out as either true or beautiful. Then you try to make the true ones seem beautiful and the beautiful ones true" maybe by beauty he meant poetic truth.

Friday 1 March 2024

Drafts on paper

When I'm at workshops others seem to come up with finished products in minutes. Not me. My first drafts (even of poems) aren't much good. I'm a rewriter.

My first drafts are always hand-written. When I transfer them to a computer I still mostly edit on paper, printing them out so I can scribble on them. I use arrows (or sometimes numbers) to indicate changes in the sentence and clause order - I'm not good at getting the ordering right first time. I usually add more text than I take away. The closer to a final draft I get, the more I take into account the reader viewpoint. Just before I send a piece off I sometimes make changes purely for the editor (paying particular attention to the first paragraph, etc).

Editing on paper is becoming a lost art. Fortunately, Flaubert’s messy drafts have been scanned in – see for example "I, chap 7 : La levrette Djali - définitif, folio 91". My rewriting workshop talk has more examples.

Sunday 25 February 2024

Substack

For years I've used Twitter, Facebook and Blogger. I look at Twitter and Facebook maybe twice a day, posting infrequently if I have publication news. I use Blogger more often, for storing and making posts. I've 1300+ mini-reviews there and many articles. It's easy to use and it's uncluttered. I've been using it since 2011. The stats (over 1.2 million hits) aren't especially meaningful because there's so much bot activity. Here they are anyway -

Blogger's become less useful as those I used to follow (and who followed me) are leaving it. One of the common places they're migrating to is Substack, which offers syndicating and monetising features that Blogger lacks. If you put material there, it can be mailed to subscribers, and you can add material that only paid-up subscribers will receive. It's good for things like newsletters, and good for bait and switch. I'd have used it for publishing my articles and workshop notes had it existed a decade ago. I've started playing with it now, without knowing what I'm going to use it for. I'm watching the way people like KM Elkes use it, to get ideas.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

2024 - a quiet year so far

  • Only 1 acceptance.
  • 1 piece of Flash nearly written.
  • 1 short story from years ago 30% rewritten, incorporating 2 recent Flashes.

I don't feel as if I'm bursting with ideas, so it's time to focus on sending off. I've 6 stories, 8 Flashes and 9 poems out there awaiting judgement. 1 of the poems is in a competition (first time for years that I've tried) and 3 stories are in competitions. I've 7 stories to send off, and some poems that have recently been returned to me. Once I've dealt with those I really must get back to writing again.

The phase of the writing process that gives me the warmest glow of satisfaction is when a story I'm working on suddenly falls into shape - I can see what's not needed and where passages need to be added. Completion isn't far away and won't be hard to achieve. But reaching that phase is a struggle. Nowadays especially, as soon as a story reaches Flash length I'm tempted to stop, and start a new piece. My plan in the next month or so is to try the reverse - put some Flash pieces together to make a story.

Wednesday 7 February 2024

UK Literary magazines in print

Call me old fashioned, but I still like literary magazines that are printed. There aren't many left. Recently it was announced that Planet and New Welsh Review are ceasing - together they've been going for 130 years. I realised recently that Dream Catcher (poetry and stories, with a few reviews) is still going, so I've subscribed to that. I already subscribe to

  • Under the Radar (poetry and stories, with several poetry reviews)
  • Orbis (poetry and a few flash-length stories, with several poetry reviews)
  • The Dark Horse (poetry and essays)
  • Postbox (all stories) - no subscription. I buy it when when it comes out.

Wednesday 31 January 2024

"Flash fiction as a distinct literary form ..." by Shelley Roche-Jacques

In "Flash fiction as a distinct literary form: some thoughts on time, space, and context" (from "New Writing - The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing") Shelley Roche-Jacques look at some aspects of Flash, prose poems and short stories.

  • She suggests that Flash has a distinguishing feature that prose poems don't need - "I am of the opinion that something needs to happen, or perhaps more importantly, that a context needs to be created in which there is the possibility of something happening"
  • When comparing Flash and short stories she thinks "most critics and writers seem to suggest the difference is more in degree than kind"

That seems fair enough to me. I think it's useful to restrict the "Flash Fiction" category to pieces which acknowledge the concept of narrative. There are pieces of short creative prose that aren't prose poems or CNF, nor do they create a narrative context, but such pieces (on the essay/flash spectrum maybe, or shaped prose, or triptychs, etc) can fend for themselves.

She makes some other observations that I agree with too -

  • "As an avid reader of flash fiction, I have noticed the prevalence of the simple present tense. ... Perhaps, as Flick points out, because of the simplicity and sense of immersion it offers."
  • "the brevity of the flash fiction form perhaps affords the writer greater freedom to play and experiment. The deft use of deictic elements can be seen as a way of establishing swift immersion and/or negotiating the spatio-temporal layers and landscape."
  • "Due to the limited space in flash fiction, a popular and effective technique seems to be to have the protagonist ‘thinking forward’ beyond the end of the scene"

I think lots of U.A. Fanthorpe's pieces could nowadays fit in a short text category, but that's another story ...

My out-of-date contributions to the debate include -

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Seán Hewitt

I went to see Seán Hewitt at Pembroke College tonight (in their new auditorium). He has degrees from Cambridge and Liverpool, and lectures at Trinity College Dublin. About 80 people attended, 20 queuing at the end to get books signed! He said that writing his second poetry book he was conscious of writing a book rather than a set of poems. That wasn't so with his first book.

Friday 12 January 2024

How to review poetry

A while ago Charles Boyle (CBeditions) noticed that a book he published which the TLS described as "an astonishing achievement" and the Literary Review described as "a masterpiece" sold fewer than 100 copies in its first year.

In ‘Next time you dive’ (or How to play a poem) from "The Friday Poem" Jon Stone "illustrate[s] what he thinks we need to do to broaden the readership of poetry"

Helena Nelson has a piece in the same issue. In "Are poetry reviews pointless?" she writes "First, I want to test out Stone’s theory that I can profitably respond to a set of poems as “toys”. Second, I want to review a book in a non-typical way, avoiding “florid” terms and a standard evaluative stance."

When I read a book, I write it up online. I used to try the odd review-style write-up - I keep a list of longer poetry reviews online. Nowadays my write-ups are mostly jottings. I posted a write-up each Wednesday and Saturday, which used to match my reading speed. Now that I'm reading (and listening to) more books, I'm filling up future Wed/Sat slots so fast that I'm up to April 2025. So to slow myself down I think I'll try to write some reviews again.

Rather than toys, I think I react to poems as if they were disposable alien technology - if I don't understand what a part does, I remove it to see what happens, or re-assemble the pieces. Biologists try to understand DNA that way sometimes. However, I have a feeling that I might end up writing similar reviews to before, "fun to play with" becoming a substitute for "good" when describing a poem.

When a new art form (e.g. Cubism) emerges, at first people don't know how to react. There are many individualistic responses. Many will be resistant to change, pointing out how the new work lacks what old, familiar works have. Before too long, collective experience will come to a broad consensus about an interpretative framework. That framework can become too rigid though - a new orthodoxy that fails to keep up with new ways of looking. So let's see what happens if things are shaken up.

Saturday 6 January 2024

Formalish verse

Deviations from standard forms are common - to reduce rhythmic monotony; to surprise; to emphasise a word/phrase, etc. These deviations work because of readers' expectations. In mosques, Islamic art deliberately breaks the pattern too.

But other deviations are harder for me to understand. Here are some comments by poets about their poems in "The Best American Poetry, 2000"

  • Olena Kalytiak Davis's "Six Apologies, Lord" is one of a "sequence of 'Shattered Sonnets' that sort of simultaneously distort, discard, and highlight formal, thematic, and rhetorical sonnet conventions."
  • Adrienne Su says of the 6-stanza "The English Canon" that "I deliberately ended the first four stanzas with '-ing', which is a kind of cheater's rhyme, and the last two with the imperfect rhyme of 'combat' and 'scratch.' I threw in 'protest' and 'trust' near the end, for fun. Between the cheating, the imperfection, and the distance between rhymes, I hope that the poem reads as free verse, yet looks formal because of the tercets. The combination of the free and constrained, of modern and traditional, seemed suited to the subject, writing to and from the canon".
  • Mary Jo Salter says "The poem was a liberation to write, technically speaking; though it rhymes, the rhyme scheme changes every stanza, and the meter is deliberately clunky."

In my Relaxed Forms article I list further examples. I still struggle with the idea of random deviations - if I can't see a reason for breaking a pattern, my instinct is to query the craft. I'm most suspicious when the deviation comes in the lines which the poet particularly wants us to understand, as if clarity and form are in opposition.