A Trickle of Income

In 2003, The Killers released their first single Mr Brightside, but it didn’t take off commercially until 2004. Despite the gap of nearly two decades since then, the single has spent 307 non-consecutive weeks in the UK Top 100, accurate to Friday 25 March 2022. This type of sleeper hit has a literary equivalent called the midlist.

A midlist book in a publisher’s catalogue won’t shift a lot of units at any one time, instead consistently selling enough copies to justify keeping it in circulation. But is this a good or a bad place to be? It depends on who you ask.

Publishers typically like the midlist because it gives them a wide pool to choose from, not to mention bringing in reasonable passive income for minimum marketing. On the other hand, writers can find it difficult to promote their work because those marketing budgets are geared towards new releases.

Realistically, most published novels will end up on that list, with only a few breaking out as household names. But the aforementioned passive income can also benefit authors. I’ve had a few short stories and poems published between five and ten years ago, and they bring in secondary royalties from when books are lent or copied.

If you’ve had anything published with an ISBN, I urge you to register with the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. There’s a one-off membership fee taken from your first payment, but subsequent ones are made every six months with no further deductions.

Back on The Slam Wagon

Earlier this month, I visited the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. On previous visits, I’ve stayed overnight to allow me to visit the poetry slam, which finishes around midnight. This time, because of other commitments, I missed out on what’s normally one of my highlights.

Nonetheless, I did manage to take part in a smaller-scale slam on Saturday just gone and at a more local venue. Unusually, this was hosted and judged by comedians rather than poets, which lent the evening more of a cabaret vibe.

I’d half-forgotten I’d been invited to perform there, so I spent much of Saturday trying to re-learn a poem I’d written about three years ago. But as each performer would be invited to perform at least twice, I had to accommodate for that too.

Plan B was to find a short poem that I could remember, or at least improvise with.

Plan A was more of a risk, but also what I ended up doing. During the first round, I would write clerihews about the performers and the judges, and perform it as my second poem. It’s something I’ve done before at poetry events, but never competitively. Just as actors often take improv classes to improve their skills, I think writers can benefit from timed exercises.

Ultimately, I didn’t go through to the third round. I don’t know how that would have gone anyway, as I’d created a lighthearted atmosphere with my first two pieces, then my third one would have signalled a definite change of mood.

The top honour went deservedly to someone who’d won the StAnza slam just one week before.

Inside the Box

Only in the last 12 months or so have I discovered how much I dislike writing outdoors. I’ve recently been thinking about this, but because of an art lesson rather than prose or poetry.

The task was to find leaves from trees and bushes, then draw them under natural daylight. It did not go well. I set up a table and chair on my balcony, which doesn’t see much sunlight until later in the day. It was freezing, it was windy, and at one point, my pen fell off the balcony. A sunny day can be just as bad, making it difficult to read a computer screen with the glare, and there’s still often a risk of rain.

But more than that, even under the most favourable of weather conditions, I only enjoy writing indoors. When I’m outside, I like to be standing up and moving about. It’s not an environment that puts me in a frame of mind for writing.

This knowledge helps me incredibly. I know if I want to finish – for example – a blog entry at lunchtime, it’s not worth the 20-minute round-trip to the park, and that I’d be more productive sitting on my couch.

Writing to Form

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to format a poem.

The first is to use a form. This can include structures like a short unrhymed haiku, a complex luc bat of indefinite length, or rhyming every second or fourth line.

In my own work, I would normally default to free verse, but in a recent piece, I started writing a triolet before realising that a villanelle has a similar repetitive structure, but allowed more than twice as many lines. The intent was to present as a heated argument between two people, so the repetition worked quite well.

In free verse, by contrast, the form is dictated by the poet in terms of line length, syllable count, where any rhyme is placed, &c. In my experience, this is often misunderstood by non-poets – and even some poets – as it can look like the words are simply chopped-up prose or placed at random, rather than placed there with intent.

It’s difficult to sum up in a few paragraphs how to write free verse poetry, but the best advice I can give is to chop out what you don’t absolutely need. Even when writing to form, I sometimes find it necessary to remove the unnecessary and replace the missing syllables with another thought or a stronger image.

This advice particularly comes into its own with rhyming couplets. If it works for the piece, then that’s great, but consider whether removing the couplets element might make it stronger. I have a lot of experience of hearing second lines that seem to be placed there only to rhyme with the previous line.

Preserving Audience Expectations

About three weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a poet who’s planning a book tour and was looking to promote it later this year, either in an existing event or as a one-off collaboration.

I was rather excited by the idea. This poet is quite well-known on the Scottish scene and to have her along at Hotchpotch would be a terrific boon.

On the other hand, our open-mike night is not set up to place the focus on one person. Instead, everyone who comes along on the night is given equal time and prominence. Furthermore, we’ve already arranged to vary the format in September and November this year to welcome an established company. The question was whether a third time might have been too much.

As such, I made the suggestion of having the book launch before the open-mike. I also urged the poet to contact another organiser whose events do have a headline act.

I then received a message from the other organiser at the weekend saying this person was ‘quite a scoop’ for his event. Although the door is still open for a Hotchpotch tie-in, I still feel it was a good call to preserve the open-mike element and therefore the expectations of the audience.

Wherever this poet chooses to launch, I look forward to seeing it happen.