Writing to My Influences: Six Months On

Earlier this year, I wrote a letter to Kazuo Ishiguro after reading his book Never Let Me Go. It was necessary to use pen and paper because his publisher didn’t provide an e-mail address. I enjoyed the process so much that it sparked off a project to write to 10 other people who have influenced me.

Six months have now passed since that project. I haven’t received a response from any of them, but I didn’t ask for one; I merely wanted to express my thoughts on their work. At least I can be reasonably certain the letters did reach their respective destinations as none have been returned to sender.

English: The first U.S. aerogram, then called ...
English: The first U.S. aerogram, then called a air letter, the modern transformation of the letter sheet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have no plans to repeat this project, but if I did, I’m uncertain whether I would do anything differently.

The most difficult letters were to Jasper Carrott and Billy Joel because they were childhood influences rather than current ones. Yet I’m glad I did because, as 2016 has shown, nobody will be around forever. Conversely, I fear I might have scared off Andrea Gibson as that ran to four handwritten A5 pages. Given another chance, I might have boiled it down to its essentials, and I acknowledged this point within the letter itself.

There is one side benefit. To carry out the project, I needed suitable writing paper so I bought a notepad with tear-out pages. On the odd occasion when I’ve needed to write other letters and notes over the last six months, it’s been ideal.

I do quite often write on paper even if I’m not composing a letter. This entry, for instance, began life as handwriting in a notebook; I wasn’t in a hurry and it’s more portable than a laptop, plus it slows down your thoughts to the speed of the pencil. When it’s finally put on computer, it undergoes its first edit. If you’re accustomed to using a computer, I recommend the method.

How to Fix a Broken Piece

I think all writers have pieces that, for some reason, don’t have maximum impact or aren’t coming together in the way we want. In this entry, I have some suggestions for these pieces based on my own experience.

In 2013, I was given homework from a writing group to pen a story inspired by lines from a poem. As it wasn’t coming together, I spent the afternoon in the library writing until it made some sort of sense. I eventually created a flash fiction piece that became my first published story.

A couple of years later, I was working on a poem for performance at an upcoming gig. When it wouldn’t come out in a way I liked, I went for a walk in the cold. By the time I returned home, all the elements began to settle into a list poem. The finished product gained a positive reaction on its début, and has done on each reading since.

Broken mirror
Broken mirror (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which brings me to my most recent difficulty. This was another list poem, in response to a friend’s work, that wouldn’t flow no matter the order in which the lines were arranged. I ended up writing each line on a separate slip of paper and drawing them out of a bag like raffle tickets. That method helped to identify which lines felt out of place and could be removed, then the remaining fragments naturally joined together.

The most recent poem hasn’t been heard by an audience yet, as I think it needs to be left aside for a while. I’ll revisit the piece in the future with fresh eyes and decide whether I still like it as it stands. And time is one of the best ways to fix non-urgent work.

In  2014, I came home from the aftorementioned writing group having been unable to think of a story from the prompts given. I was so annoyed with myself that I typed up my frustrations in short sentences with plenty of negative space between the paragraphs, then closed the document. Thinking it would be embarrassing, as it was never intended to be seen by others, I didn’t reopen the file until earlier this year.

I was jolly surprised to find that it might actually work as a poem, and I’m also more inclined to figuratively bleed onto the page than I was two years ago. So it might yet be seen before an audience.

Publish and Be Careful

As I’ve no urgent writing projects on the go right now, I’ve turned my attention back to submitting work to publishers. There are never any guarantees in publishing, but I have a few tips to help ensure the process is as painless as possible.

Keep a close eye on what you submit and when

I maintain a spreadsheet with the following columns: Publisher, Submission guidelines, Closes, Date entered, Decision notified, Title(s) entered, Entry method, Overall submission count (target 52 per year).

Most short story and poetry publishers insist that you don’t submit a given piece to any other place until they’ve accepted or rejected it. If a piece is rejected, I use the strikethrough font effect so I know it can be sent elsewhere; if accepted, it’s noted on a separate spreadsheet. Note that agents looking for novelists usually don’t mind if you send to several places at once.

Be early

Right now, we’re heading into the Christmas and New Year period. Publishing lead times can be so lengthy that it’s far too late to submit festive pieces, as editors will now be planning for Easter or even summer. Yet there’s also an opportunity here: if you’re inspired to write a piece this December, there’s plenty of time to refine it and submit it in summer next year for next December.

Unless instructed otherwise, use a standard manuscript format

On his website, writer William Shunn offers a range of templates that contain all the information publisher needs, such as your contact details and pen name. Occasionally, you might be asked to use a certain font or a different layout. In those instances, always read the instructions carefully and follow them precisely.

A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan
A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Be selective about entering competitions

This is perhaps a contentious point, but it’s a purely personal point of view.

When you send work to a publisher, there is almost never a charge. For a competition, there’s almost always a fee, and it can be up to £5 or sometimes more. Assuming an average fee of £3, entering even one competition a week can cost more than £150 per year. Aside from the financial aspect, I’ve had experiences where competition rules have been badly phrased or even self-contradictory, leaving me unsure how to enter.

That said, there are a few competitions I make a point of entering because they’re so prestigious or because the potential payoff would be worth it, which brings me to my final point.

Look at the reward offered

It’s a fact of a writer’s life that some publishers want your work without payment or other reward, usually with the well-worn line that they can offer exposure. If you do simply wish to make your name known, then by all means enter your work, but be clear about this from the beginning. I generally take no payment only when it’s for someone I know personally, or if it’s for charity.

Otherwise, the least I’d expect is a contributor’s copy of the finished book and/or a cash fee, however nominal. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of time to create a publishable piece, so never be afraid to charge for your work.

Where Do You Want to Write Today?

For the last month, you might know I’ve been taking part in National Novel Writing Month as well as leading the group. I’m pleased to report I passed the 50,000-word target on 29 November.

Because the project took up so much of my time, it now feels like there’s something I should be doing, except that there isn’t. The manuscript is tucked away in a drawer, and its dawning on me that I’m free to pursue other projects. At the moment, there’s a non-urgent opinion piece I want to write, plus an idea for another novel tangentially related to the one in the drawer. That, and it’s fun to use the word tangentially.

When you’re writing to a deadline, or even if you’re not, it’s sometimes necessary to write wherever and whenever you can. I was tackling my novel at break times and lunchtimes, and sometimes in front of the TV at night. But how difficult is it to find your optimum writing spot?

English: Mist over Aberfeldy A band of mist al...
Mist over Aberfeldy A band of mist along the Tay covers Aberfeldy at dusk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve heard about a number of authors who have cleaned out their spare room, installed a desk, ensured they have no distractions, yet went back to an old favourite spot because the created one simply wasn’t conducive to writing. I once experimented with sitting right behind the front door. There was plenty of light, the noise level wasn’t excessive, and I knew nobody was going to barge in, but something about that place made me feel uncomfortable.

These days, I do the majority of my typing while standing with my back to my bedroom window, and my laptop or Freewrite on the end of the bed. When writing by hand, I can do that in a café, on a train, or during a dull literary event trying to look like I’m avidly taking notes. I find it difficult to be in a silent place, because even the noise of the pencil or a page turning sounds like a terrible racket.

By far, though, my favourite writing place of recent times was in the town of Aberfeldy overlooking the mountains. The piece in question was my dissertation rather than fiction or poetry, but I would consider going back there if I had another big project to tackle.