Lots of Words, Little Payoff

A long time ago on this blog, we explored what to look out for when submitting your work. I’d never had a particularly bad experience until recently.

But first, let me take you back 2½ years. I’d entered a short piece to be included in a charity anthology, along with a number of local writers. The book would then be sold to raise funds for the cause.

The process was long and slow. Months after my submission was accepted, I remember going to one meeting, which I found to be an unstructured and unproductive discussion about the form this book should take. As such, I didn’t attend another meeting, although I’d cut the committee a little slack because it was clear they were learning as they went along.

We then received sporadic updates about its progress, and just over a week ago, we heard confirmation that the book was finally ready. All we had to do was send our postal addresses to receive a contributor’s copy.

At this point, it transpired that the contributors would not receive complimentary or even reduced-price copies. This came as news to us as much as it did to the writer who had been liaising with the charity committee. We were instead invited to buy a copy for £19.99.

It’s considered bad form in the publishing world to charge contributors to see their own work in print. Some presses do operate like this, using a business model called vanity publishing, but that’s looked down upon in the industry, even by self-publishers. In this case, I’m satisfied it wasn’t the committee’s intention to act like a vanity publisher, but a case of not understanding the conventions of publishing.

None of the contributors want it to reflect badly on the charity or its purpose; indeed, that’s why we supported it with our words. Nonetheless, a number of us feel shortchanged. If we had been advised at the start we would be expected to buy a copy, we would have at least made an informed choice. Even for those who might choose to buy this volume, it’s currently only available in person and on a certain day of the week, which further restricts its availability.

The contributors have now opened discussions with the committee in the hope that a deal or a compromise can be reached.

A Tutor Like No Other

Throughout the ten years I’ve been writing, there has been one figure almost constant throughout: a man called Eddie Small.

I learnt of his death a few weeks ago, and his passing has left a gaping hole in the Dundee literary scene. He would always appear at poetry events to support writers or to read himself. One of his strengths was that he would chat and joke with anybody and everybody.

In this way, he would encourage people to improve themselves. He worked with a pal of mine who had a terrible fear of public speaking; so much so that she once ran offstage mid-reading. With his intervention and patience, she was eventually able to read her work in front of a theatre audience.

I, meanwhile, love the limelight. When an actor couldn’t perform in his play The Four Marys, about four local figures who shared a forename, he thought of me and offered me a small part.

I last met Eddie in January of this year, talking about his latest book To Bodies Gone, celebrating 130 years of Anatomy at the university.

Indeed, he was very open to talking about death and encouraged others to do the same. On one memorable occasion, he somehow managed to arrange for my classmates and me – English students, not medical ones – to visit the medical school mortuary. I recall it was rather life-affirming.

As his passing was so sudden, it’s been hard to take in. It’ll be a long time before I turn up at an event and don’t expect to hear him roping someone into one of his many projects.

Almost a Live Show

Regular readers will know that I run an open-mike evening called Hotchpotch, where members can come along either to read a poem or simply to listen to others. However, we haven’t been able to run in its classic form since March because of restrictions on live events.

So far, we’ve been using YouTube as a substitute, and posting members’ readings to our channel. However, we’re holding a one-off event called Hotchpotch Presents… next week.

For this, we’re moving to Zoom, and the most notable difference is that the line-up is advertised in advance, not comprised of those who turn up on the night. We have 11 performers ready to perform seven minutes each, and they’ll be introducing each other to keep the flow.

We have experience of this format before, having trialled it as a live show in April 2019 at the Rep theatre in Dundee. There was quite the vibe that night, and I do hope we’re able to channel for this second airing of Hotchpotch Presents… on Monday 19 October.

Local Motion

If there’s one activity that unites writers other than producing words, it’s a tendency to go for long walks, an endeavour that seems to help organise the thoughts. I aim for 21,000 steps every day – a 20,000 target, plus a 1,000 margin of error – so I’m on my feet for a lot of the time.

Over the last few months, I’ve been catching up with a podcast on my walks. it started five years ago, so it’s been quite amusing recently, as the hosts and guests lay out their plans for 2020, assuming live gigs and workshops would be going ahead as normal.

I’m now only about six months behind, but I’m finally feeling the fatigue of consuming so many episodes on the trot. I’ve therefore made a conscious decision to ease up on my listening for the moment, and I’ll catch up when I’m ready to dive back in.

Now I’m back to using the time to organise my thoughts – just like I used to – and it’s helping me produce more work. Long may that continue, even when I start my podcast again.

For instance, I wanted to write a piece for my poetry group to include in a pamphlet, but I couldn’t strike the right tone. After a few walks, I managed to sort it out and make a submission.

I’m Apparantly Building Quite the Voluminous Vocabulary

Although I don’t generally have a problem with spelling or grammar, I like to use Grammarly software as a double-check. It’s especially useful in a browser, which tends only to have basic correction functionality.

Every week, I receive an e-mail with some statistics about my writing. This week, I was advised I have a voluminous vocabulary. Let’s take a look at what that means:

  • You were more productive than 85% of Grammarly users.
  • You were more accurate than 78% of Grammarly users.
  • You used more unique words than 86% of Grammarly users.

So far, we’re onto a winner. Reading on, here are the tones it’s detected in my writing and the percentage of the time I’ve used them.

  • Informative: 20%
  • Informal: 16%
  • Joyful: 13%
  • Appreciative: 12%
  • Formal: 9%
  • Friendly: 7%
  • Neutral: 7%

And the number of words checked since 18 Jan 2017?

1,033,593

Now let’s see the weaknesses:

  1. Missing period: 16 alerts
  2. Missing closing punctuation: 16 alerts
  3. Missing comma in compound sentence: 13 alerts

The is where Grammarly and I disagree most. I like to use an Oxford comma and the software doesn’t. And fet it would like me to use them before and after ‘therefore’, whereas I think that slows down the sentence unnecessarily.

The purpose of these e-mails is not merely informative, but to encourage me to upgrade from the basic package. I used to subscribe to the Premium servies, but I find it has more features than I need.

But if spelling and grammar is your sticking point, or you’re worried about accidental plagarism, it’s definitely worth subscribing.

It Would be Clichéd to Use the Title ‘Poetry In Motion’, so I Shan’t.

One of the best-known verses in the English language is I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, written more than 200 years ago. I can hardly compare myself to William Wordsworth, but a couple of days ago, I took my own walk with the aim of writing poetry.

Since 2017, I’ve been a member of the Wyverns poetry group, which has been meeting by e-mail rather than in person for most of the year. There are, of course, better solutions than e-mail, but that’s the way we’re stuck with for the moment. As such, I’d missed the theme for this month and I didn’t have much time to write it.

So I headed up the Law Hill in Dundee with the intention of writing in the forms of a tricube and a ghazal. Unsurprisingly, at 572 feet above sea level, the poems ended up being about a hill.

The connection between walking and writing has been known for centuries, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Wordsworth was so gushing about his daffodils.

And yet the other classic piece of advice to writers is the very opposite of going for a walk: to keep a pen and paper by your bed for ideas. Apparantly, the limboland between waking and sleeping is a good place for them to materialise, but that doesn’t work for me.

I need to be moving around, pencil and paper at the ready, just in case I spot golden daffodils.

Concerning Cringeworthy Competition Clangers

Many times before, I’ve talked about submitting prose and poetry to publishers and competitions. I haven’t submitted anything for a while because I’ve been working on longer-form pieces.

But I was taken back to those days last week after reading a post from the point of view of a poetry competition judge.

It’s a largely personal list, but the more I looked down the list, the more I nodded at what John McCullough was saying: the difficulty of reading a handwriting font, poets covering the same old topics, and disappointing last lines. He adds that there are non-winners who have still moved him in some way, poets who successfully connect two unrelated concepts, and how he reads each entry twice at different times to give a fair hearing to every entrant.

When I was submitting regularly, I always preferred doing so to publishers rather than competitions, with a few select exceptions like New Writing Scotland. There’s almost never a fee to pay, they usually reply to you even if it’s a rejection, and the rules for entries are often simpler. In fact, I was left baffled by a few smaller competitions with rules that were difficult to interpret or were even self-contradictory.

Still, as someone who has dealt with the public for many years, I’ve seen how people have a tendency to ignore or make up rules on a selective basis, and it rarely leaves a good impression on the receiving party.

So when the rules tell you to use Times New Roman, don’t resort to the aforementioned handwriting font, even if you think it looks nicer. Certain topics might also be wanted or not wanted, so don’t be tempted to send an inappropriate piece ‘just in case they like it’; it’ll only signal that you haven’t followed the requirements.

There’s no formula for winning a writing competition, but there are plenty of avoidable ways to lose one.

The Long and the Short of It

Back in May, I mentioned I’d been taking drawing lessons from Ana Hine on Patreon. The lessons are still going on, and I’m slowly learning different techniques to use in my work.

Parallel to this, I’ve been taking part in online life drawing classes. At the beginning, the model poses for three minutes as a warmup exercise before moving onto 10- and 20-minute poses.

I felt defeated before I’d even started: three minutes simply wasn’t long enough for me to make a decent attempt. That’s about as long as it takes to read this post twice over, according to http://readtime.eu/. What’s more, I spoke to artists who not only liked these short poses, but sometimes preferred them.

But then I began to make a comparison with the poetry I write, specifically the clerihew form. I’ve written these for so long that it’s now relatively simple to pen an original one on the spot. For instance, my personal trainer asks me to send a food and exercise report every evening, and I always include one with the e-mail.

I reasoned that if these three-minute poses were as simple to some artists as clerihews are to me, then there must be some value in persisting with them.

With Ana’s help, I’ve been drawing people passing in the street or sketching characters from a film without pressing Pause. One day, I aim to churn these out as quickly as those clerihews.

Don’t Scare the Newbies

In her autobiography Sex and Shopping, the novelist Judith Krantz talks about a professor from her college days. In the anecdote, he’d reduced her grade from an A to a B on account of her spelling. That incident put her off writing for more than 30 years.

Rationally, it seems like an overreaction: one comment by one person on one day set her career back three decades. Yet negativity is a powerful weapon.

Some years ago, I had a job where I spoke to the public by phone for 37 hours a week. On any given day, the interactions that I remembered most vividly were not from the friendly and co-operative callers, but from the rude and obstructive ones. And it works in reverse: one disrespectful sales assistant on one day can mean a shop losing a customer.

There is research to suggest that it takes five positive events to cancel out a negative one. In the case of Krantz, she was also of college age at the time and therefore in learning mode, so it’s likely she would have taken this more personally than if she’d already been producing work.

Last week, a friend finally showed me some of her poetry after we’d talked about it for weeks. She hadn’t shown anyone before, so I’d promised to take it seriously and to provide constructive feedback.

Dismissing someone’s work without good reason is at best unproductive and at worst unprofessional. If a writer hasn’t received feedback before, how can they improve? I’ve never seen a piece that couldn’t be improved by restructuring the narrative or removing words.

After our discussion, I hope the aforementioned friend will feel encouraged to show future work to me and to others.

Finishing What You Start

When I’m stuck for a blog post idea, I check my Drafts folder on WordPress to see whether I can resurrect a half-written idea. At the time of writing, however, there is little material in any of the drafts.

One of them covers the concept of life writing, which I’d already discussed last week. Another was placed there by WordPress about how to use their Guttenberg editor interface. A third entry simply contains the words ‘Jesus wept’, and I’m not certain what caused me to exclaim this.

While considering these entries, I began thinking of the prose and poetry I’ve started but not fully finished. Sure, I generally finish a first draft of what I write, but that doesn’t mean I’ve gone back to edit it. However, I do keep everything I write because sometimes it comes in useful.

A few years ago, I was reaching the end of a Masters degree in Writing Practice & Study. The course had worked its magic, encouraging me to move in different directions with my writing, which wasn’t a problem until it was time to compile the dissertation. With 80% of the mark resting on a creative portfolio, I was faced with the challenge of bringing together my disparate work into one unified piece.

I had a meeting with two tutors to discuss the matter, bringing along samples of my work to figure out how to present it. As we were coming to the end of the pile of samples, we looked at a short story written in diary form about a first-year student with a horrible flatmate. I’d written the story as a homework piece for a writing group, falling back on the diary form because I was so short of time.

One of the tutors suggested incorporating my pieces into the form of that story, presenting it as though someone else had written my work. This character was rather flighty anyway, so she could feasibly have written in different styles over a short space of time.

I went back to the draft of this writing homework, converted it into a script, and beefed out the story. It solved the problem nicely and helped me to bag an A-grade for that part of the dissertation.

I’ve since gone on to refine this into a one-hour dramatic monologue, which is now more or less finished.