Note to self: don’t call this entry ‘The Write Stuff’

Last week, I was reminded that when you have a passion for an activity, you’ll find a way to carry it out no matter what the conditions.

I’ve subscribed to Artificial Womb, a feminist zine run by my friend Ana Hine. The format really is an old-school zine, with A4 pages of typed text and freehand drawings stapled together into a booklet. But this edition was different. The first variation to catch my eye was the return address on the envelope; it was a hospital in Kent. In this issue, Ana is candid about why she’s confined to the place at the moment.

Regardless, she somehow managed to find collaborators, write and illustrate the zine entirely by hand, photocopy the pages, and post the finished product to subscribers. On top of that, there’s a mini booklet about her former partner and a small piece of art on a separate sheet. I think that’s marvellous work under the circumstances.

You can subscribe to the zine right here.

A public-domain photo of an open notebook.
A public-domain photo of an open notebook.

Most of my fiction, poetry and even blog entries start life as pencil on paper. But last week, I also wrote a letter of my own by hand.

I have a friend in the US who goes by many aliases, but for the purposes of this entry, I’ll call her C. In March, I sent her special-edition David Bowie stamps and she replied recently with a thank-you card, two postcards, and a handwritten letter. I felt compelled to return the favour.

On one hand, I found the process of writing to be liberating in the sense that there was no urgency. Unlike an electronic message, there is no expectation of a near-instant response, so I was able to draft and redraft the letter, and also to write one of the postcards in the area depicted in its photograph.

But the process also highlighted a difference in style between her letter and mine. C would go off at tangents and ask questions, some of them rhetorical, whereas I was more inclined to create a narrative structure and answer questions rather than ask them.

So I rethought my style, and the final letter deviates radically even from its last draft, answering some of her questions and posing my own. Even with the aforementioned postcard, that ends on a cliffhanger, with the comment that a stranger had sat next to me on the bench as I was writing and that I wished he would find his own spot.

I also alerted C when I’d posted my letter, as she’d told me that mine was arriving. After our brief discussion on the matter, I don’t think I’ll flag it up next time, and simply let it be a surprise. I might also surprise you and end this entry abru

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Bang for your buck.

I realised recently that I hadn’t sent off any work to publishers for rather a while, and now I’m beginning to make up for it.

When you submit short stories or poetry on a regular basis, you quickly realise there are two broad types of market.

  1. Directly to publishers. This is where an publishing house invites submissions of single poems or stories for an anthology, often on a set theme, and an editor decides what’s included. There are usually no charge to send in work and the author is often paid a flat fee or a rate per printed word.
  2. Competitions. This is where an organisation invites submissions, often on a set theme, and a judge or panel of judges decide who wins. There is often a charge to send in work, and the winner usually receives a cash prize along with publication.
English: Wil Wheaton at the 2011 Phoenix Comic...
English: Wil Wheaton at the 2011 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At least that’s how it should work. However, I’ve been involved in more discussion of late about places that aren’t giving a fair deal to their contributors. This includes Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton, who was asked to write for the Huffington Post in return for ‘exposure’.

I’ve heard anecdotal evidence from a couple of poet friends that a popular magazine follows a similar ‘exposure’ model with the claim that they’re a small press and are unable to pay. At least one of these friends has been professionally published elsewhere and will no longer submit to this magazine.

I’ve also recently spotted an advert for a competition with a £10 entry fee or £11 if submitting online, and the prize is to read your work at their event. To me, there’s a lot wrong with this.

Firstly, the price difference is not explained; contributors appear to be penalised for not wasting paper. Secondly, it’s still around double what you would expect to pay to enter a competition. Thirdly, there’s not so much as a nominal cash prize offered, nor any mention of a contributor’s copy.

My advice is to be clear about your reason for sending your work to a particular place. Ask yourself whether the reward is proportionate to its quality and to the financial position of the publisher.

That principle still applies to charity or fundraising work. This year, for instance, I’ve been invited to perform at local landmarks to raise funds for the maintenance and restoration. As I know the organisers, I’m clear that I’m donating my time and work to these causes. One of them even offered me travel expenses, which I declined.

But don’t think everywhere is out to get you. Gutter magazine offers a two-year subscription rather than cash payment, which I consider to be fair, while feminist zine Artificial Womb is a tiny operation but makes a point of paying every contributor.

And a final piece of advice: Wil Wheaton wrote that the exchange he had with the editor wasn’t unpleasant, and that he didn’t blame her for company policy.

Echoing this, it’s always a good idea to be civil to editors no matter how the conversation ends. We’re used to reading about authors and other celebrities who act like divas, but if you develop a reputation for being difficult – especially at the start of your career – word will get around quickly and potentially close off avenues you hadn’t yet explored.