Archive for the ‘Being A Writer’ Category

Seven pieces of writing advice from the speakers of The Business

Monday, May 26th, 2014

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (1)

Last week, I was extremely flattered to be invited to speak at The Business, an event run by the University of Edinburgh and hosted by their Writer in Residence Jenni Fagan. The event was designed for budding writers who were keen to know more about the ‘business’ side of being a writer. I was asked to speak alongside publishing megastars like Francis Bickmore and Jenny Brown (!!!), and my topic was, essentially “is a Creative Writing PhD right for you?”

I think my talk went OK: the best part about it was definitely making my supervisor, Alan — who was hiding at the back of the room — blush quite a lot as I talked about what a brilliant mentor he’d been. But much better than my barely coherent ramblings were the talks of the other speakers. I hand-picked some useful advice from each of them for your reading pleasure…

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (4)

1. Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown Associates, literary agent:

“Don’t write to trends.”

I’ve seen Jenny Brown speak on many occasions, and she always manages to make her advice to writers fresh and relevant to what’s going on in the book world at that very moment. However, this piece of advice is always in there and I think it’s something a lot of young novelists (in particular) need to hear. “You can never get on top of a trend,” she says, “because by the time you get your novel out there, you’ll have just missed it.” Instead, she advises, you should concentrate on writing a great novel that you love, and that your agent will love. “I don’t pick books based on genre, or based on whether or not I think they will be commercially successful,” Jenny said. “I mean, those things are factors, but at the end of the day if I love your book, that’s the main thing. All the books I’ve picked to represent, I have loved.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (6)

2. Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt, publisher:

“We need more narrative non-fiction.”

Did you know that the market for non-fiction is far larger than the market for fiction? “Fiction is declining,” Chris revealed, and he picked up on a point that Jenny had made about her love of nature writing. “Jenny said she was disappointed not to see more nature books. I agree. I wish more young writers would break into non-fiction earlier.” He said that for every fifty novels that landed on his desk, he’d see only one non-fiction work. (He also mentioned poetry’s market share: less than 1% of the entire book market. But then, we knew that, right?)

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (8)

3. Francis Bickmore of Canongate, publisher:

“The hair shines with brushing.”

Francis gave his own seven rules for writers, all of which were great, but this was by far my favourite. He said it came from a friend of his, another publisher, who’d been listening to one of their writers moaning about how many edits they were needing to do on their novel. “The guy’s response was, ah yes, but the hair shines with brushing. The hair shines with brushing. I think it’s Flaubert or something, and it’s so true.” In other words, edit, edit, polish, edit, polish and then edit some more. Make your writing shine.

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (9)

4. Stuart Kelly of The Guardian and many other places, critic:

“If you’re not interested in writing a novel that changes what the novel is capable of, get out of the business.”

This was probably my favourite piece of advice from the entire event. It’s something I might nick, except I’d replace the word ‘novel’ with ‘poem.’ What Stuart was saying is that the best novels are the ones that really push the boundaries of the form: one of the audience members gave the example of Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad, which happens to be my favourite novel ever, and really does do what Stuart’s talking about. “It’s not enough to just mention Twitter here and there,” Stuart said. “I’m talking about really experimenting with what this form can do.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (10)

5. Peggy Hughes, of Dundee Book Festival, promoter:

“Perform your work in public.”

Peggy, aka the most-loved person in Scottish arts administration (no joke, she’s awesome) was in attendance to talk about the role of literary festivals in the writing business. She revealed that she routinely attends poetry readings, open mics and other literary events in order to scout for potential talent to book for her festival. “Go and read at these things,” she said. “You never know when someone like me might be sitting in the audience thinking, I should book this person.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (11)

6. Kevin Williamson of Neu! Reekie!, promoter:

“Embrace the improbable.”

Kevin’s talk was mostly about his whirlwind experience at the helm of the Creative Scotland-funded cabaret sensation that is Neu! Reekie! He talked about having his face put on a new whisky brand’s label, meeting Richard Hell and somehow managing to get Primal Scream to play at one of his gigs. But it wasn’t just half an hour of how cool Kevin Williamson’s life is: he also talked about how rewarding community work can be for writers, talking a bit about his experiences teaching the poetry of Robert Burns in Scottish prisons. “All the things that have happened to me have been pretty improbable,” he said. “When Neu! Reekie! started we had no idea where it was going to go. So just embrace it, just go with whatever comes to you.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (12)

7. Jenni Fagan of the University of Edinburgh, writer:

“Pace yourself… and get off Facebook.”

Jenni is in the middle of developing her novel The Panopticon (which is good and you should read it, by the way) into a film script, so she fielded a lot of questions from the audience about that side of things. However, she warned that “98% of all films never get made,” and pushed the importance of focussing on the writing first and foremost. “I got off Facebook because I found that I was looking at things like the best way to peel a banana, and then from that I clicked on to a really cute photo of a koala bear… and then before I knew it I’d spent a whole hour and all I’d done was surf a bunch of crap.” She says writers ought to focus on removing anything from their lives “that takes you away from words,” but she also noted the value of pacing yourself, and knowing that everything does not happen at once. “I have this idea for another novel,” she said, “but I am pretty sure I won’t start writing it for maybe another five or ten years. You just have to let things take their course.”

Incidentally, if you have any questions about Creative Writing PhDs, keep an eye out for a post on the topic in the next little while!

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Dear poetry newbies: you need a mentor!

Monday, April 28th, 2014

from "Asphodel" by WIlliam Carlos WIlliams

My advice to new and aspiring writers has always been: read, read, and then read some more. Wanting to be a writer without first being a reader is like wanting to be a Formula 1 driver without ever having sat in a car. And yet, time and time again I’ve heard new writers – my students; the people who used to submit to Read This, the magazine I edited – say that they don’t read because they don’t want to be too heavily influenced. They don’t want to feel like they’re “copying.”

This is garbage, of course – you sit down and try to write like Allen Ginsberg, or Emily Dickinson, or Sapphire, or any other writer with a distinctive style that might creep into your writing. You’ll always end up with a pale facsimile. Whatever you write will always contain more of you and your voice (however much that voice still needs to develop) than anyone else’s. And believe me, it’s much better if your voice sounds authoritative and well-read than if it sounds green and uncertain – which it will, if you don’t study other people’s good writing.

However, I do know what it’s like to feel afraid of “being influenced.” Almost exactly two years ago, I was lucky enough to win a 2012 Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award – a prize that offers a full year of creative mentoring along with its nice wedge of cash. Obviously, I was hugely grateful that my work had been selected, and very glad of the money, which I used to fund a brilliant writing retreat on the island of Hydra, Greece (to this day, I have never been so productive). However, I’ll admit: I was uncertain about the mentoring. Having had creative writing tutors in the past whose style of critique I totally disagreed with (no one learns anything from soul-destroyingly negative notes), I was worried I might not get on with whoever was picked to mentor me. And just like those new writers whose refusal to read had exasperated me in the past, I started to realise I was also worried about influence. What if this mentor was also a poet? What if they had their own ideas about what poetry ought to be like? What if they were an amazing writer, and I found myself changing my own writing in order to impress them? Reader, I was worried.

However, that was nuts. It turns out? Creative mentoring is utterly amazing, and everyone – I mean literally every creative person – should do it, if they get the chance. I mean sure, you have to find a mentor you can get along with as a person, but I’d like to believe that most people who are willing to take on the role of mentor are probably pretty nice. (There are roughly a dozen SBT New Writers Awardees every year – I have now met many of them, and so far none of the various alumni have had a bad word to say about their mentor.) Otherwise, all you need to do is find someone who’s an expert in your field, and who – of course –wants to take on the job.

I hadn’t actually thought about it this way, but I’ve had a writing mentor of sorts for the past eight years. In 2006, I hit the third year of my degree in English Literature, and one of the Honours courses on offer was Creative Writing (Poetry), taught by Alan, contemporary poetry specialist, writer-editor of huge academic tomes, and established poet. Turns out my first Creative Writing seminar was the first class Alan taught in his new post at the University of Edinburgh, and from that class until I finished my PhD a few months ago, I was the one pesky student who just refused to go away. When I finished my MA (Hons) and went straight on to the Masters in Creative Writing (Poetry), Alan was my course tutor. When I leapt straight from the Masters into my PhD, he was my first and most obvious choice for a supervisor. Alan has seen more of my creative work than anyone else (more even than Lovely Boyfriend, who’s only been around a measly four years; more than my parents, who only see the poems that don’t have swears in them). If Alan isn’t a creative mentor, I don’t know who is – he has shaped the way I write more than any writer I’ve read or workshop I’ve attended. And I mean that in a really good way.

(NB: Do I write like him? Absolutely not. I mean obviously, he’s a billion times better than me – and in both form and content we’re kinda like chalk and cheese. Again, I tell you, folks: the whole “fear of influence” thing is total garbage.)

Then last year, I was assigned my SBT Award mentor. Although it’s taken me until now to realise that I already had one in the form of Alan, I was a bit worried that the two might contradict one another. I was still under Alan’s supervision for the PhD, after all. However, I needn’t have worried. Apparently, the only thing better than one creative mentor is two creative mentors.

I was assigned to a lovely freelance editor named Sarah – a poetry specialist who’d mentored many a new poet before I came along. It became apparent pretty quickly that Sarah wasn’t interested in doing the same job as Alan was doing. I’d spent the last three years writing poems and having Alan help me to make them better. Sarah’s job was to take the huge pile of largely-finished material I had lying around as a result, and turn it from a random stack into that truly mystical and terrifying beast: a manuscript.

The best thing about working with Sarah? She totally got what I was trying to do. In fact, she “got it” far better than I did. She told me that in order to tie my manuscript together, I needed to think about the major themes that ran through my poems. I panicked, telling her I hadn’t really written the poems with any larger themes in mind – I just wrote what wanted to be written. “Oh, there are themes in there,” she assured me. “Print out all your poems, spread them on the floor, and start putting them into piles – put the ones that speak to each other together.”
Sarah said she’d do the same thing, and then we’d compare results. I found the exercise hard-going. I had a lot of poems about women and written in women’s voices (my PhD thesis is about contemporary female poets using the confessional mode, so this was a no-brainer), but it turns out, that’s not a theme. Seeing the poems Sarah had put into piles, however, was genuinely eye-opening. “Your main theme is place and space,” she told me, as my jaw hit the floor. “Look how many of your poems take place in domestic spaces. Look how many of them are liminal, travelling poems. This is a collection about trying to find your place in the world.”

It is. Loads of my poems are about ghosts – about the hours and days immediately after death, as they try to find out where they belong now. Loads of my poems are about travel, but never fun travel – they’re about being lost or getting robbed or generally being a clueless white middle-class person who doesn’t really know where they are. And so many of my poems are about women in houses – but scary houses, houses that are “wrong,” in some way. All my poems are about trying to find a place or space to belong, and I had never even noticed that. That’s the epic power of the mentor: when they’re really good, like Sarah is, they can make you see your own work objectively – a thing I always thought was impossible.

Other great things about working with Sarah? I wanted to make a book, I didn’t know how to do that, and she taught me. She taught me how to put my poems into an order that both showcased each one nicely on its own, but also created an arc across the manuscript for the reader to follow. Like Alan before her, she pulled no punches when it came to making me edit – she explained clearly why I needed to lose that line, switch those stanzas around, come up with a better title or even ditch that poem from the manuscript entirely. Perhaps most importantly, she made me write. She recognised early on that I’d come to the end of the creative section of my PhD, that I was focussing on slogging through the last part of a thesis I’d long since grown weary of, and that I was using this as an excuse (a good one, I’d thought!) not to write new poems. She set me a deadline, created a public Google Doc and then made me post in it every day to show her what I’d written. It turns out, she didn’t check it every day – but I didn’t know that. It sounds cruel, but it was so utterly what I needed. Like I say, she just really “got” my writing.

What I have to show for all this mentoring is a manuscript that I am happy to send out to publishers. It’s out there somewhere, right now – hopefully not in a bin or on a slush pile, but I really have no way of knowing. It may well be that it gets nowhere, that no one else thinks it’s all that good. But that doesn’t really matter. When the lovely folks at Scottish Book Trust (now my colleagues!) asked me what I’d like to have achieved at the end of my mentoring year, I said, “a manuscript that I feel proud of.” Thanks to Sarah – and to Alan – that’s exactly what I’ve got.

My first full length poetry collection manuscript is entitled “This changes things,” and is currently out on submission. If you would like to find out more about it, you can email me via claire [at] onenightstanzas.com

(Image credit)

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Writing advice from Mary Oliver.

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Swanpy

I want the poem to ask something and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered. I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader’s part in an implicit author-reader pact. Last but not least, I want the poem to have a pulse, a breathiness, some moment of earthly delight. (While one is luring the reader into the enclosure of serious subjects, pleasure is by no means an unimportant ingredient.)

[...] Take out some commas, for smoothness and because almost every poem in the universe moves too slowly. Then, once the “actual” is in place (the words), begin to address the reason for taking the reader’s good and valuable time — invite the reader to want to do something beyond merely receiving beauty… Make sure there is nothing in the poem that would prevent the reader from becoming the speaker of the poem.

[...] The poem in which the reader does not feel himself or herself a participant is a lecture, listened to from an uncomfortable chair, in a stuffy room… The point is not what the poet would make of the moment but what the reader would make of it.

Mary Oliver, from ‘The Swan.’

…and here’s a poem written using ^these rules. See what you think.

(Image credit)

Dear poetry newbies: “why is my work always rejected?”

Monday, January 20th, 2014

A version of this post first appeared at One Night Stanzas in November 2008.

1. The standard isn’t high enough.
And by this I just mean that your poems aren’t “fit” for publication yet… but not that they never will be! If you’re sending out first drafts, poems that have only been hastily redrafted or edited, or poems that even you don’t think are all that amazing, then it might well be that you haven’t done quite enough to catch the eye of an editor. It’s easy to write a poem and then be overcome by a fervent desire to get it sent out immediately, but resist! Never send first drafts, and always devote a good chunk of time to redrafting and editing your chosen pieces. If possible, put them away for a while (a week, two weeks…) and then come back to them. And never send anything you’re not sure about. Work on it til you ARE sure about it, or send something else.
(NB: One of the best ways to get your poetry up to publication standard is to read the stuff that poetry magazines actually do publish - and if you can get hold of a copy of the specific magazines you want to submit to, even better!)

2. You’re not following the submission guidelines properly.
Some editors are happy to chuck a submission onto the slush pile for the slightest thing, so it’s always important to read and follow the submission guidelines carefully. Make sure you do everything according to the guidelines wherever you can; it can be a total pain, but it can also make the difference between acceptance and rejection. And don’t assume that one magazine’s guidelines apply to all! Read everyone’s guidelines, and follow them every time!

3. You commit minor - but deadly! - submission crimes.
A lot of poets reckon they can get away with sending the same four poems in the same email round to a whole load of editors at the same time - don’t do it! This suggests to editors that you don’t really care who picks up your poems or whether they’re published simultaneously. You also shouldn’t send “speculative” emails out before sending a submission. It may seem like politeness, but if an editor receives an email saying “check out my website and then maybe I’ll submit later”, they’re going to think a) you’re arrogant and b) you haven’t read their guidelines. Just put your submission together and send it! And don’t send snotty or pushy emails to editors until at least three months (yes, really, I’m afraid!) after the date you sent your submission. If you haven’t had a reply, there’s probably a reason, and going “oi, what are you messing about at?” after only a week or so is not going to make you any friends. Basically, when it comes to submissions, put in the work, follow the rules and be patient - that’s all there is to it!

4. Your cover letter needs a rewrite.
Have a good look at your cover letter (if you have one! If you don’t - write one!) and see if there are any of these common mistakes in it: heaps of biographical information (3 - 4 lines should do it); anything that could be interpreted as dishonest or boastful (”my work has appeared in 300 journals worldwide,” or the like); excessive negativity (”you’ll probably just reject me, but…”) anything that criticises or questions the publication or editor you’re writing to (”I found your website really hard to navigate” — keep it to yourself for now!); and of course, typos, grammatical errors or any unnecessary rambling! Exorcise all these things! It may leave your cover letter very short, but a couple of lines is all you need.

5. You’re submitting to the wrong magazines.
There are a lot of creative writing magazines out there and most of them are open for submissions for at least part of each year… so technically, you can submit to any of them. However, if you’re new to the whole submitting thing (or even if you aren’t!), it can be hard to know which are the best to choose. The sad fact is that a lot of editors are wary of publishing people who have never been published before, but fortunately, there are more and more magazines out there whose mission-statement is to provide as many writers as they can with their first publication opportunity. Many others specify that they welcome “unknown” or “emerging” writers, and you’re probably better off submitting to these if you can. You do get “unknown” writers in, say, Poetry Review, but if you want to give yourself the best chance of being accepted, it’s better to walk before you run, as they say!

6. You’re not ready to publish yet.
Only you can really know whether or not you’re ready to publish, but if you’re trying to get your work out there and the rejections are getting you down in a big way, then maybe you’re not 100% ready for the submission process. This might be hard to accept, but it’s better to wait until you’re better prepared than to make yourself suffer every time one of those pesky rejection letters lands in your mailbox. Give yourself six months, even a year. Spend that time writing - and more importantly, reading! - and then try getting back on the horse. You might find you still feel the same and need more time… if so, no worries. Or you might suddenly find that there’s the odd acceptance letter among those rejections; or that the rejections don’t bother you so much. Either way, the “time off” will have been well spent!

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Dear poetry newbies: are you ready to workshop?

Monday, January 6th, 2014

A version of this post first appeared at One Night Stanzas in October 2008.

What does workshopping involve?
Basically, workshopping is about testing your work out on other writers to see how successful it is, and getting an idea of how your audience will approach it. It’s a tool used by writers of all kinds - from people who pen corporate business documents to playwrights and even musicians. Usually, you get together with a bunch of other poets, and you each read a sample of your work to each other (often, the rest of the group will already have read and thought about your chosen pieces - most workshops I’ve been in have circulated a ‘reading list’ by email a few days before the workshop itself). Each member of the group then offers feedback and constructive criticism on your work, and in turn, you give your thoughts on their work. It may sound a bit scary, but workshops are generally small, relaxed groups were just about anything goes, and they create a safe environment where you can test out poems you’re not too sure about before you unleash them onto the general public!

How does workshopping benefit my poetry?
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do about your poems once you’ve finished them. Editing is a tricky business - the more you look at a poem, the less you can see how to change it (you know how you never notice your own typos? It’s a bit like that). You become so familiar with your work that the only thing you can really do is squirrel it away for a couple of months in an attempt to then come back to it with fresh eyes, but this is tricky and takes a long time. The other people in your workshop can provide those fresh eyes for you.
Your workshop group can tell you exactly what about your poem “needs work” when you can’t see it yourself. It might be your handling of punctuation, a dodgy rhyme scheme… whatever. Your group can offer in-depth criticism, right down to the smallest comma. Workshop groups are also useful when it comes to keeping your poems clear. It’s easy to get caught up in your own head, where every image in every poem makes perfect sense to you. However, workshopping provides a handy reality check - your group may well turn around and say “I didn’t understand what was going on in this poem.” That may sound like a harsh comment, but it’s important that your readers feel able to get involved with and relate to your poems. Your workshopping group is your barometer when it comes to things like this - they’re like a small panel of poetry readers, only better. They write too, they suffer from typos and mess-ups and rejections too, and they want to help you… for free!

How do I know if I’m ready to workshop?
This is a tricky one. If you’ve never workshopped before, your first time can be rather weird, intimidating and even a bit disheartening. You have to bear in mind that you’re putting your work into the hands of other people and essentially saying, “here’s my poem - do your worst.” You’re laying yourself open to criticism, and whilst it should all be constructive, when several different voices are all pointing out issues in your work, you can end up feeling a bit like you’re under attack.
Many young, inexperienced poets are very bad at taking criticism, simply because they don’t get very much of it and when they do, it comes as a bit of shock. I used to be dreadful - hearing someone criticise my poem, I’d just think “what do you know? I like it how it is so get lost!”, regardless of how constructive or useful the criticism was. If you have a similar attitude, you need to work through it. Constructive feedback is your friend, and workshopping will never be helpful to you until you learn to take it on board.
The best thing to do is just get in there and try it. Try to join a relatively new group if you can, or wait until they re-group after a break, say after the Christmas holidays, for example. Joining a really established group who are already very used to each other’s styles and voices can leave you feeling a bit left out. If you can’t avoid joining an established group, at least try not to be the only newb. Take along a friend or two so you’re not the only one who feels out of the loop!
Just go along for one workshop and see how it goes, see how you feel about the treatment your poems get. Bear in mind that each of your fellow workshoppers is just a reader like any other, regardless of age or experience - they’re just like you, and the points they make will often be based on nothing other than personal opinion. Some people will like your work and others won’t, and all the advice you get is just that - advice. You can take it or leave it… just make sure you give all of it fair consideration!
If, at the end of your session you think you’ve picked up some useful tips, you’re ready to get stuck into workshopping - so sign up! If you come out feeling angry, upset or disheartened, however, you may need to a) try a different workshop (some take a lighter approach than others) or b) wait a while before you commit to workshopping. Try getting one-to-one feedback from friends or family first, as practice. Think carefully about how you react to criticism, and try to move away from the fact that your poems are your babies and you need to protect them, and more towards the idea that your poems are babies that need to be nurtured - and sometimes disciplined! - in order to grow. Once you’re able to see criticism as a positive thing, then you’re ready to workshop.

How do I start workshopping?
Finding a workshop can be tricky, and will depend on where you live, who you know and how literary your local community is! However, you’d be surprised - even in the most unlikely places, workshops exist. Do some research online, or ask local literary organisations or establishments if they know of the existence of a creative writing workshop in your area. The local library, bookstores, the University or college closest to you - these are all good places to go to ask for information. If all else fails, get yourself over to Gumtree or Craigslist and place an ad. Be sure to check out the existing ads too - someone else might be doing the very same thing!
Once you’ve found a workshop, make contact - don’t just turn up at a meeting. Find out who runs the show and drop them a line; let them know a little bit about yourself and get as much info as you can about the workshop. Make sure they’re cool with poets, they’re OK to take on beginners and you don’t have to pay too much (workshops sometimes as for a small weekly/monthly fee for buying tea/coffee, renting the room they use or whatever. If for any reason the fee seems unreasonable, look elsewhere.). Ask them what you’d be required to do, and if you’re feeling super-nervous, ask if you could come to your first workshop without contributing - just to sit in and see what it’s like. Most groups should be cool with this… and as I say, if you’re the only newb or you just need some moral support, ask if you can take a friend!

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo by NuageDeNuit)

Typewriters: they’re awesome and you should get one.

Monday, November 11th, 2013

A version of this post first appeared at One Night Stanzas in December 2008. (Back then the first line said “at this moment I have five manual typewriters.” Erm…)

Guilty secret: I am obsessed with typewriters. At this moment I have thirty-one manual typewriters, including my latest acquisition, a freakin’ gorgeous Olivetti Valentine. Why am I so obsessed with typewriters? Well, they’re noisy, heavy, impractical and difficult to use, but they’re also the ultimate poet’s accessory. Allen Ginsberg hauled a massive Underwood 5 around with him; William Burroughs typed on his own namesake, and was The Good Doctor ever without his trusty IBM SElectric…?

Why should I get a typewriter?
Well, I’ll be honest with you… if you think you’re going to be sitting down to write a 600 page novel on your manual typewriter, you might want to think again. It doesn’t matter what you do (Margaret Atwood apparently used to sit her typewriter on top of a wad of newspapers), it’s going to be noisy. It’s also going to be a pain in the butt to type on, particularly if you’re used to the feather-light keys of a laptop! Around about 1950, typewriter manufacturers started to advertise “noiseless” and “light touch” typewriter models, but even these are pretty cumbersome. You also have the typo issue - there’s no room for error with a manual typewriter, unless you’re cool with crossings-out and tippex! So if you’re planning on doing any serious writing, you might want to consider an electric… quieter, zippier and generally easier to work with.
However, electric typewriters are nowhere near as cool, and in a world where everyone has some kind of word-processor, a typewriter’s main appeal is its cool factor! Personally, I think manual typewriters are incredibly beautiful — I have mine sitting around my house making the place look pretty. They’re also a serious feat of engineering… try opening one up some time and inspecting all the weights and springs. A manual typewriter makes a laptop look boring.

How can I get hold of one?
Manual typewriters are ten-a-penny if you’re not fussy about make and model, so you don’t need to look to far to find one. Try checking out thrift stores or flea markets and see what you can find, or click around on eBay. There’s a whole load of choice out there so have a look around and find a typewriter you love — if you’re into the older, clunkier ones, eBay might be the place. But post-1960 typewriters turn up regularly in charity shops and at jumble sales and the like. I inherited my Smith Corona from my Dad, but all my other typewriters have come from junk shops and thrift stores.

What should I be looking for?
Well, when I buy a typewriter I’m usually after something that looks nice, and if it’s in its proper case and works that’s an added bonus. But you might want to check that all the parts are there — sometimes typewriters can be missing covers, bases, feet, or bits and pieces from the outer bodywork. It’s not necessarily a tragedy if these things aren’t there but you can sometimes haggle the price down a bit. If you want the typewriter in full working order, you need to check a few things:

- The space bar. On manual typewriters, the space bar is often operated by a weight system which pulls the cartridge along on a string. If you press the space bar and the cartridge doesn’t move along, it might be that the string has snapped. This is tricky to fix yourself (trust me, I’ve tried) and you might have to get an expert to take a look. So bear in mind that this could cost money!

- The ribbon feeder. Second hand typewriters have often been sitting unused for years, so more often than not their ribbons dry out. However, even if the ribbon has no ink in it, you should try typing a few words and pay attention to the ribbon movement. Does it move along through the spools? If it sticks or clogs, you can usually fix it yourself, but it’s worth checking. If your chosen typewriter has no ribbon fitted, you’ll need to find out what ribbon it takes, either by asking the seller or by doing some online research. It’s hard to find a replacement ribbon if you don’t know the right type.

- All the keys. One of the most common faults on old manual typewriters is the ‘capslock’ key, which is usually just connects to a little hook in the mechanism that locks the shift key down. This hook can wear out and stop sticking on. Other keys to check are the lesser-used ones - the numbers and symbols, but also the tab key, which should shuttle the cartridge along. But the best thing to do is just to try them all!

- The cartridge itself. Just check that it does move back and forth and doesn’t stick anywhere. Again, the movement of the cartridge is directly connected to the string-and-weight system, so if it doesn’t work it might cost you £££ to fix.

- Other things you might want to do: pick the typewriter up (sometimes the bottom will drop off or parts will drop out!), feed a piece of paper through (the rollers can be very dirty or can stick), test the carrying case (the last thing you want is the case breaking open and the typewriter smashing on the way home!) and look into the mechanism (sure, you might not know what you’re looking at, but if there are springs, strings or shards of metal sticking out, you might need to worry).

Obviously if you’re buying from eBay, you can’t do this stuff yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask your seller for all this information, and if you’re even slightly worried about the condition, look elsewhere! (I’ve found that eBay sellers tend to be sincere and honest and quite willing to deal with queries like this, so don’t worry too much about asking.)

Ginsberg & typewriters
Some of my babies.

What should I be paying for a typewriter?
Prices vary massively with manual typewriters, but if the typewriter you’re looking at is post-1960, chances are it is not rare or expensive. You have to remember that typewriters were the laptops of the 50s, 60s and 70s — everyone had one, so if anyone tries to tell you that they’re “rare,” you might want to be suspicious. Wartime and pre-war typewriters are less common and perhaps more valuable, but again, you shouldn’t really be paying too much unless your typewriter is something really special. Things you might need to pay more for include:

- Wooden casings. Typewriters with wooden bodies are quite unusual - metal, bakelite or plastic is much more common so a wooden typewriter is a rare typewriter.

- Unusual colours. Some typewriter manufacturers brought out special editions in weird and wonderful colours. In pre-1960 typewriters, colour might be an expense factor (but post-1960 it was pretty common for typewriters to be colourful, particularly if they were plastic) — look out for dark green or dark red casings.

- Leather embellishments. Another feature of special edition typewriters.

- Iconic typewriters. The Underwood 5 is reasonably common but it’s also iconic. People will part with quite a lot of cash for a nice one. Similarly the aforementioned Valentine, which is a coveted design icon… though I got mine for fifty quid in a charity shop!

- A foreign language. If you come across a typewriter whose keys are cyrillic or in another language, it might be worth a bit more.

Just be careful - don’t be ripped off. For just about any post-1960 typewriter, you shouldn’t be paying more than £30. I’d even say that in 99% of cases, you probably shouldn’t be paying more than £20. The most I’ve ever paid, apart from my Valentine, was £15 for my blue bakelite Imperial, and I think I might even have been ripped off a bit there! For a pre-1960 typewriter, keep a limit of £30-£50 or so, unless your typewriter is something special.
If you think you might need to spend money on renovating or cleaning your typewriter, try and haggle the price down! I once found a wartime metal typewriter in a charity store which had a £50 price tag on it, but which had been sitting in a chicken shed for decades… and it was full of feathers and chicken poo! I told the store that I’d need to spend money on cleaning it and I’d give them £35, but they wouldn’t haggle. It certainly wasn’t worth £50, so I left it… don’t be conned!

What if I’m buying on eBay?
eBay sellers can be a bit cheeky with their prices, and on eBay you can’t haggle. Just don’t get carried away in a bidding war — you really don’t need to pay over the odds. Bear in mind also that you’ll have to pay to have the typewriter delivered, and this can cost a huge amount, as typewriters are heavy things! They’re also fragile things, so if you want yours in proper working order, you might want to think twice about having it flown across the world… particularly if it doesn’t come with its own carrying case. Many people will opt for surface shipping rather than airmail with an item like a typewriter, too - it’s cheaper and gentler, but it does take a lot, lot longer… we’re talking months! And there can be problems when it comes to getting typewriters across borders — many older typewriters have keys made of or containing ivory, and if you try to ship ivory into the USA for example, it can end up just being destroyed by customs officials. So online shopping is a bit of a minefield… don’t be afraid to do some research and ask your seller questions about these issues!

What can I do with my typewriter once I’ve got it?
Well, despite the fact that they’re noisy and heavy, they can still make pretty sweet writing machines. If you just want to write letters, or the odd short, sweet poem, they’re perfect. They also make awesome ornaments and I often use mine to stick photos or paperwork in. I have a friend who used to use a heavy old typewriter (don’t worry, it was in a fairly serious state of disrepair when she got it!) as a doorstop. If you want, you can dismantle your typewriter (just make sure it’s not worth major £££ first!!) and turn it into all sorts of stuff… look around on Etsy and you’ll find jewellery, mobiles, paperweights, bookmarks, sculptures and artwork, all made out of typewriter parts! Typewriters are also useful things to have around if you’re into Steampunk.

Something I always like to do when I buy a new typewriter is get on the internet and do some research. It’s great to find out when your typewriter was made and what it might have been used for… maybe a famous writer used the same kind of typewriter as you, or perhaps it was popular among chic 50s office workers. I’m always fascinated by this stuff and there are heaps of typewriter-related sites to help you find out all about your typewriter!

What kind of typewriter(s) do you have? How much did you spend, and where did it come from? Anyone have a cool typewriter tale to tell? I want to hear it!

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Dear poetry newbies: dealing with negative criticism

Monday, November 4th, 2013

You suck

A version of this post first appeared at One Night Stanzas in October 2008.

How do I tell the constructive from the negative?
This is tricky - particularly if you’re new to receiving criticism or if you feel particularly proud of the piece of writing being criticised. If either of these things apply, then you’re very likely to see any criticism as an attack. And don’t get me wrong: even constructive criticism can feel that way sometimes, but look out for the positives. There’s a definite difference between “cut out stanza four, it’s no good at all” and “if you cut stanza four, the poem would be better”. The suggestion is the same, but the delivery is crucial. The first statement is concentrating on what’s wrong with your poem, while the second is a suggestion for making it better.

Another way to work out whether something is constructive or negative is to look at how universal the critical statement sounds. Offering a personal opinion is usually fine; making sweeping generalisations isn’t. For example, if someone says “this doesn’t really read like poetry to me”, they’re just offering their opinion. If they say “what you write isn’t poetry”, they’re assuming that all your readers will agree. There’s a big difference between “this isn’t to my taste” and “no one will like this.”

Some negative criticism can be deliberately well-hidden, too. Statements like “I’m sure there’s a good poem in there somewhere” or “I think I understand” are very ambiguous. If it’s ambiguous, it’s not really helpful either way, so give your critic the benefit of the doubt and ask them to be more specific. You should soon be able to tell whether or not this is criticism you should be taking on board.

Someone just made a really mean remark to my face. What should I do?
First of all, step back and try to be as objective as possible. Don’t just tell them to get lost, and don’t allow yourself to say the first thing that comes into your head - you’ll doubtless regret it later. Instead, think quickly but carefully about how you want to react. If the criticism needs an immediate response, buy yourself time by saying “I’m not sure what you mean,” “can you elaborate?”, or even “sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.” (This can be a good tactic, because while it’s easy to say something hurtful once, having to say it again can make people think.) As your critic rephrases their remark, you may come to realise that they didn’t intend to be hurtful in the first place, and you could well be glad that you didn’t just snark them off! However, if you’re still hurt by their comments, come back with a neutral response like, “that’s an interesting angle on it, I’ll think about that”, or “well, I appreciate any feedback.” That way, you can bring the issue to a close and escape from the conversation… or at least change the subject!

Someone’s left a negative comment on a forum/my blog/a poem I posted online. What do I do?
If someone else has written ill of you, that doesn’t mean you should do the same - so don’t take to a blog or forum-post and vent spleen yourself. Instead, try to get the comments in question removed. If this means communicating with the original poster, don’t get personal - just make the request as reasonably as you can. If it means speaking with someone higher up the foodchain, don’t be too long-winded or dramatic… just point them in the direction of the trouble, and explain briefly why you think they need to intervene.

If the negative comments are on a smaller scale - say, if a mean commenter has wandered into your deviantART gallery and decided to leave a few choice words - the best thing you can possibly do is just ignore it. This can be really hard, but an angry response of any kind means that your negative commenter has won. If you’re itching to write something scathing back, snap your laptop shut or turn off your monitor and remove yourself from the situation. Go away and do have a cup of tea, or have a rant about it to someone. Don’t go back to your computer until you’re cool, calm and collected; until you know that you won’t even be tempted to dignify your attackers with an answer. (NB: this is hard. I have not always succeeded in staying nice. However, I’ve always regretted it when I’ve given in to snark!)

My work got a really negative review, and heaps of people have read it. What do I do?
This can feel like a huge deal at the time, but it really isn’t. If you’re a writer, bad reviews are part of the job-description, and trust me, they really don’t hurt your career as much as people might like you to think. Any review is just the opinion of one person, and them saying “this person’s writing sucks, nobody should read it,” is kind of like saying “rum-raisin ice cream sucks, nobody should eat it.” Sure, rum-raisin ice cream might be an acquired taste, but are people really going to stop eating it because one guy told them to? Nope. Are people really going to totally boycott your site, book or pamphlet just because one guy told them to? Nope. People have brains in their heads, and they want to make up their own minds, so the best thing to do about a bad review is ignore it and move on, ASAP. Think about it this way: this person who hates your writing has just told a whole load of other people that you exist. They might not have known that before. Your reviewer (if they’re even half-decent at their job) may also have sparked the curiosity of a few people. Chances are, even a bad review will get you more readers than no review at all. It really is true what they say: all publicity is good publicity, so really, you should be raising a glass in honour of your evil reviewer!

Argh! I snapped back at someone because they were negative about me, and how it’s got out of hand!
OK, so someone was mean about you so you were mean back, and then all their friends started being mean about you too, and they’ve all written heaps of bad stuff about you and you’re totally out of your depth. Or maybe you responded angrily to a negative commenter and now they’re really upset and threatening to get back at you somehow, and you’re worried about what they’ll say/do. Or maybe you’ve said something you now regret to someone important, and you’re terrified about the consequences it could have. I understand - never fear, it happens all the time, and these things are usually pretty easily solved.

Situation 1: they were mean, then you were mean back, now everyone’s being mean. No one’s in the clear here, but someone needs to take responsibility, and that someone might as well be you. Get in touch with the original negative commenter, and apologise (sincerely - no double-edged comments). Say you’re sorry, you didn’t mean for things to get out of hand, and you want to move on. If they’re even a half-decent person, they’ll accept your apology, and hopefully get rid of any nasty stuff they’ve written about you. If they don’t accept your apology, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to walk away, and console yourself with the fact that you were able to behave like an adult in the end. It may be worrying to think that there is snark about you all over the internet, but trust me, as long as you haven’t done anything actually criminal, it’ll probably never make a difference to your future.

Situation 2: you were mean, and now they’re threatening vengance. OK, realistically, what is this person going to do? Even if they’re threatening to harm your career prospects as a writer, those threats are probably pretty empty (I once had a reasonably well-known poet insinuate that no editor would ever acknowledge me if she had anything to do with it. So far, no evidence of this…), because trying to wreck other people’s chances doesn’t do your own chances any good at all. The best thing to do in this situation is to take back what you said, however hard that may be for you. Remove the comment you made, and apologise. If that doesn’t work, you’ll just have to take your chances. Again, I reckon I can guarantee that nothing drastic will come of it.

Situation 3: you said something you now regret to the wrong person. Easy: get in touch with them, apologise, and explain. If you don’t have a way of contacting them, find out. And if you can’t find out, move on. Yes, unfortunately people do have long memories, but sometimes you just have to chalk these things up to experience. The only thing you can really do is hope that your two paths cross again in the future, and you can make a better impression second time around.

Some stuff to remember:
- Not everything that sounds negative is negative. Read or listen carefully before you respond. Bear in mind that the internet comes without body-language, which makes up about 90% of all communication. Comments that sound rude could just be sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek. If you’re not sure, ask the commenter to elaborate.

- People are entitled to hold an opinion about your work, and they are allowed to say what they think. If you have a problem with this, then maybe you’re not ready to put your work out there to be read. Think carefully about whether or not you want other people to criticise your work - if you’re not confident, don’t feel rushed into submitting to magazines or posting your work online.

- If you think you’re constantly getting negative feedback, then maybe you need to adjust your negativity radar. It may well be that you’re not great at taking criticism, and so everything feels like a personal attack. If this is the case, you have to force yourself to be more positive. 90% of feedback is useful, so try and see the usefulness wherever you can. See all reviews of your work as publicity, and bear in mind that for every person who doesn’t really dig your work, there’s bound to be another person out there who’d like it.

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Dear poetry newbies: writing in the face of adversity.

Monday, September 30th, 2013

Walk away

A previous version of this post first appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.

Here are a few phrases you’ll probably encounter a lot if you decide to tell people that you want to be / are a writer. Perhaps you’ve already heard some of them…

“Don’t be ridiculous. How are you going to support yourself?!”
“I used to say that when I was your age… you’ll see.”
“But writing’s just a hobby, isn’t it? ”
“Great. But what’s your real job?”

Sound familiar? I’ve had responses like these countless times from people who genuinely can’t understand why anyone would want to even try to make their living from writing. I think you can apply them to just about any other creative endeavour, too — try telling people you want to be a painter, fashion designer, musician, sculptor or actor, and you’ll probably hear similar things. This kind of response can be incredibly demoralising, particularly if it comes from a trusted friend, family member or personal hero. Often you’ll hear things like this from people who are older and supposedly wiser than you, which can also leave you questioning yourself. But no matter how often you hear these phrases, please, please don’t allow yourself to be disheartened by them. Many people can’t understand the possibility of an equation like writing + hard work = paying the bills. But that doesn’t make it a scientific impossibility!

Great. But what’s your real job?
OK, so the person who asks this question is probably assuming that your writing doesn’t make you much money, and as a result, you probably have another job which helps keep a roof over your head. This is a reasonable assumption to make - many writers do have a second source of income, either out of financial necessity or because it directly facilitates their writing. This is particularly true of poetry, I’m afraid. Poetry is an integral part of our everyday lives - it’s in the nursery rhymes we sing to our kids, it’s in greetings cards, advertising, and jingles on the radio. But despite this, not many people actually make the conscious effort to read poetry - to buy poetry collections, attend poetry readings or seek out new and exciting poets locally or online. Poetry just doesn’t sell well, which means that it does not generate too much income - and as a result, most poets do “real” jobs throughout their lives. William Carlos Williams worked as a doctor his whole life (he wrote short bursts of poetry in the few spare minutes between appointments), and Philip Larkin kept up his career in librarianship in spite of his rise to poetic fame. Most of the poets I know work in literature-related environments - some are English teachers, some University tutors, some work in bookstores or write copy for medical journals. Lots of poets support themselves by setting up or working for small publishing firms, which not only helps them survive - it helps poetry survive, too. But yes, I’m afraid it’s true - 99% of poets have to work at something other than their writing, which means you will probably have to, too - at least for a while.

Don’t be ridiculous. How are you going to support yourself?!
So you probably are going to have to get a “real” job, and therefore - although this isn’t very nicely worded - it is a fair question. When you’re not frantically scribbling, what are you going to do?
Well, you’re a creative person, and so I’m guessing that the thought of a 9-5 office post or a low-paid table-waiting job probably makes you want to scream. But you can relax, because you do not need to do those jobs! Teaching is a popular one. You don’t necessarily have to do a teaching degree and end up in charge of a class of thirty kids - just think about what you’re good at; what skills do you have that other people might want to learn? You write, so I’m guessing your language skills are pretty good; or perhaps you play flute, or whizz through long division? Pick a skill, work out a step-by-step teaching strategy, and then make bright, bold posters and advertise yourself (“Want to learn French? Get lessons from a native speaker!”). Alternatively, you could look around for private tutoring agencies and firms in your area, and see if they could take you on. That’s how I ended up working as an English tutor and lecturer; that’s how I paid my bills and supported my writing for over five years.
There are other ways, of course, if teaching doesn’t float your boat. Working in a bookstore may just sound like another dull retail job, but give it a try. Chances are, the people who work there are into words in the same way you are - particularly if the store is an independent one. A good poet friend of mine worked for the huge chain bookstore Waterstones, and surprisingly, loved every second. He got to work in the poetry department, and he went through there like a dose of salts, insisting that they order in more books by Charles Bukowski and other hip writers, writing enthusiastic reviews for poetry books to make people buy them, and making suggestions for cool literary events for the store. He also took the time to chat with the customers about the books they were buying, and had a great time meeting loads of like-minded people!
Basically, your “real” job should always be something you don’t totally hate. Creative people can wither in soul-crushing corporate workplaces, so make sure your day-job isn’t affecting your writing in a negative way. If it is: quit. Go work in a cool café, deliver leaflets or posters, become a carer for the elderly (old people are amazing, and good, caring people are always needed), walk your neighbours’ dogs, drive a pizza van. Do something you like, and when you’re not doing it, write. Don’t let anyone else tell you how you should support yourself.

But writing’s just a hobby, isn’t it?
So, you mainly need the “real” job because writing does not tend to generate a regular income - if you go through a bad patch with your writing and have no financial back-up, you could end up with no rent-money at the end of the month. However, writing is not just a hobby - it can make you money, if you know how to work it!
Poetry’s tricky to sell, as we’ve already discovered. However, some magazines do pay for poems. It’s not generally a lot, but it’s something - and the day of your first paid magazine gig is a momentous occasion! You can also get paid for reading your poetry to an audience, so try and get yourself on the bill of a local poetry reading. Many of these events charge a small entry fee, and more often than not, that goes to the poets. If your scruples allow, you can also try touting your poetic wares to greetings card companies or other product manufacturers… obviously you won’t be writing your best or most complex work, but you’ll be writing and making some cash!
Other forms of writing are more lucrative than poetry, thank goodness! You can make cash-per-word writing freelance magazine articles, reviews etc, and there are heaps of websites out there with advice on this kind of thing - just type “freelancing for beginners” into Google (but watch out for scams… don’t part with any cash for online writing courses or the like - you should be able to get all the info you need for free). You can also write for a specific market - as I said earlier, medical writing can generate income, as can travel writing and writing for other specialist areas.
If you’re feeling courageous, you can also send your work off to poetry contests with cash prizes (though with most of these you have to pay an entry fee… make sure it’s worth paying to enter!) or read up on grants and other funding for writers.

I used to say that when I was your age… you’ll see.
Whatever you do, do NOT be discouraged by negative responses from other people! This “you’ll see” response is particularly nasty, because it implies that you’ll fail, or that you’ll regret pursuing your writing at a later stage of your life. Yes, you should be sure that writing is really what you want to do, but chances are if you do decide to follow that path, and if you stay smart and true to yourself, you’ll have no regrets whatsoever. As for the “don’t be ridiculous” comment - writing and creating are not ridiculous exercises. If you ask me, slaving away at a PC or photocopier for eight full hours of your waking day is much more ridiculous than creating something really cool and unique and sending it out into the world for people to enjoy. And if someone asks you what your “real” job is, tell them it’s writing - you just happen to have another job on the side.

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Budding writer? Creative person in need of a fun job? Check out the various resources and services at Bookworm Tutors. Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Dear Poetry Newbies: read more poetry.

Monday, July 1st, 2013

A previous version of this post first appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.

“People who never read poetry don’t write poems that are worth reading,” says Wendy Cope in this article about the importance of reading. I daresay that a lot of you will resent this statement, but I’m afraid it’s absolutely 100% true.

In 2007 I set up a teeny tiny little DIY literature zine called Read This Magazine. Although our print run was only 150 copies per month, as ed-in-chief of RT, I saw thousands and thousands of poems by young and emerging writers. When it came to picking out the best work for publication, about 80% of everything went immediately onto what the industry calls “the slush pile” - in other words, the “definitely no” pile.

This may seem incredibly harsh - particularly as so many of these submissions were accompanied by cover letters which stated “I’ve never had my poems accepted and I don’t know why” or “I want to know how to make my poems better.” Was I just rejecting them out of hand? Did my editorial team and I not read them with as much care as the other 20%? Basically, the truth is painful: you can tell immediately, sometimes from the very first line of the very first poem in a submission, whether or not the poet in question reads poetry. And if it’s clear that they don’t, you can basically guarantee that none of their poems will be good enough for publication.

You can leap down my throat if you like - because yes, sometimes, rarely, a poet who doesn’t read anything does get lucky, and writes something insightful or interesting which deserves a closer look. However, bear this in mind: Read This was a lot more accomodating than most magazines… we did read everything through at least once before consigning it to the slush pile (just in case), and we responded personally to everyone - particularly those people who’ve asked for help and advice in their cover letters. Furthermore, giving 80% of submissions an “immediate rejection” is nowhere near the 95%-97% mark of most major magazines and publishing houses - you think we were harsh? Try Poetry Review!

You can dress it up any way you like, but as Wendy Cope says: if you don’t read, you are not going to be a successful poet, and the earlier you allow yourself to accept that fact, the better! Defiantly refusing to read other poets’ works will not endear you to the poetry community (as Kenneth Patchen said, “people who say they love poetry but then never buy any are cheap sons-of-bitches”), and chances are your work will remain stagnant and always sound, look and read in the same old way (so if it aint getting published now, the future doesnt look good). However, if you open your eyes to the great wealth of poetic material around you, and start taking it in, then you’ll soon begin to see and feel the benefits. It’s like the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ - you are also what you read.

But I hate reading!
OK, that’s fine. Some people will say “well, why are you a poet?”, but I understand. My sister is an artist, but finds many art shows and galleries a total snooze-fest. Forget what you learned in school - poetry is doesn’t have to be boring, and it does’t have to be difficult. I genuinely believe there’s a poem out there for absolutely everyone.

Read as much or as little as you want. Break yourself in gently. If you’re really struggling, try to read just one poem per day (there are heaps of resources out there to help you with this). Buy yourself a book of haikus and absorb one or two in a spare five minutes. Check out Poetry Archive and listen to a poem. Ask other people what their favourite poem is, and start a to-read list. Soon enough, you’ll find that you feel inspired; you might notice that you’re writing more, or that your writing looks and sounds different. This is poetic influence at work - embrace it!

What should I read?
Read what you enjoy. If you check Paradise Lost out of the library, get three lines in and want to kill yourself, stop reading. Read something that excites you, that inspires you, that makes you think “I want to write like this.” It doesn’t matter whether that’s The Waste Land or Tom Leonard’s This Is The Six O Clock News. There is poetry out there that you’ll love - but it might not be what you think. Keep reading until you find it.

What shouldn’t I read?
Basically, any reading is good reading - if you prefer novels to poetry, read novels: they can help you to write better poetry, too. Read anything; stage plays, memoirs, the phone book. Immerse yourself in words and look at how they’re put together. Absorb ideas.

(The only thing I would advise against is reading the poetry of other poets who don’t read. This will get you nowhere. It may be cheap and convenient, but avoid reading amateur poetry and try to read people who are published in some form or another. This may sound like snobbery, but it isn’t: if you want to get published, reading published poetry is the best way to understand what “makes it”, and the best way to turn your own poetry into something publishable.)

But if I read other people’s work and then start writing like them, isn’t that copying?
This is a tricky issue, and one that comes up a lot. As Wendy Cope says, a lot of non-reading poets claim that they don’t read “because they don’t want to be influenced.” However, these people are missing a massive trick: all poetry is, at least in part, stolen. Frank Zappa once said, “Adam and Eve made all the great records: everyone else just copied,” and that really applies to poetry. Every successful poet is influenced by someone - usually by a huge variety of other poets who came before him or her. Being influenced is a good thing… and it is totally possible to read and still be original. Try reading a few poems. Read until you come to a line, a stanza or a whole poem that makes you think “I could have done that better,” or “I’d have examined that idea differently” (it’s OK, you’re allowed to think this, even if the poet you’re reading is Whitman or someone equally famous and revered). When that thought arises, act on it: go away and write that line, stanza or poem the way you’d like to see it written. I bet it comes out looking nothing like the original.
You’re not copying, you’re borrowing; you’re sharing. Try it: it’s what poets do.

But there’s so much poetry out there. Where do I start?
Wherever you like. If you’re totally clueless, go to a bookshop or library, find the poetry section, and pick out a book with a cover that catches your eye. Go for a cool title, or a poet with an unusual name. Search the net for poems in a style you like or on a subject that interests you - science fiction, for example - and take note of the published authors who write in that style or genre… then hunt them down in a bookstore.
Just read any poetry you can get your hands on: if you like it, find out what’s similar to it, and read that too. If you hate it, find out what the opposite is, and try that. Dabble, mess around, feel free to loathe some poets and love others. Just read as much as you can, as often as you can. Then write.

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Budding writer? Creative person in need of a fun job? Check out the various resources and services at Bookworm Tutors. Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo by Emchy)

Dear Poetry Newbies: feeling the stage fright and doing it anyway

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Stage Fright [EXPLORE]

An earlier version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008

If you’ve read What’s The Deal With Poetry Readings?, then you know that I encourage people to read their poetry aloud at every possible opportunity (audience or no audience)! But I also appreciate that getting up in front of a load of strangers and reading your poetic creations can be pretty nerve-wracking, so I have a few words of advice to anyone who’s thinking about embarking on their first ever reading…

1. Say yes.
If you spot a poster advertising a local open mic, or if someone approaches you to read at their event, grab the opportunity with both hands! As I’ve already explained in What’s The Deal With Poetry Readings?, you should aim to begin reading your poetry as soon as you feel even semi-confident, because it’s such a helpful and empowering exercise. Of course, if the idea petrifies you, the urge to say “I can’t, I’m busy that night,” or “I think I’ll just go along and watch” will be very strong… but you have to fight your fears! Make yourself say yes! Commit yourself, and don’t back out. You’ll be glad you kept your nerve afterwards.

2. Be prepared.
Please don’t get onto the stage with your notebook and then just turn to a random page. While this can work for more established readers, it’s not a good idea for a first-time gig! Find a handful of poems you love. Practice on your own, then in front of your parents/siblings/partner/someone you trust, then in front of a bigger group of family or friends. Get really familiar with the stuff you want to read — this will make mistakes and blushes much less likely!

3. Put yourself first.
Negotiate with the event organiser, if you can, about where you go in the line-up. I would actually advise you to try for an early spot — first, even, if you can bear it. OK, so opening the show might be your worst nightmare, but think: you get the audience at its best, before they’ve had time to get tired, bored or drunk, and before they’ve started thinking about going out for a cigarette or nipping to the loo. You have their full attention, and they have no expectations of you — plus, if you go first, everyone will think you’re incredibly brave and be in awe!

4. Enjoy yourself.
You’ll be surprised: reading your work to an audience is actually a really, really fun experience. Acknowledge that! Don’t get up on stage with a frown and spend the whole time panicking about the slight quiver in your voice. If your knees are knocking or you’re blushing furiously, crack a joke about first-time nerves and just carry on. Getting a reaction from the audience is incredibly rewarding, so make sure you perform for them — don’t just hide behind the mic or stare at your feet the whole time. Make eye contact — I normally pick out my friends in the audience and glance up at them from time to time, or focus on the bar staff or the guys at the sound desk (they’re normally far too busy to see you looking at them!). And smile! Flash the audience a big smile whenever they react to you, and you’ll be guaranteed a huge round of applause at the end.

5. Love your audience.
No matter what your irrational brain thinks, your audience is not the enemy. They are not there to laugh, throw rotten tomatoes or judge you harshly — people who go to poetry readings are generally people who really like poetry! Your audience will know how hard it is to a) write a poem and b) get up and read it to strangers, so chances are they will admire you for what you‘re doing. You really should love and appreciate your audience. In some cases, they’ve paid money to see you (money which may well come back to you at the end of the night!) and they’ll often come up to you after the reading to offer advice and encouragement. Don’t be afraid to chat to your audience members; their reactions can be really helpful, and I guarantee that no one will come up and say “you were rubbish, give up,” or anything along those lines. They may say things like “I couldn’t hear you very well,” or “that one poem was a bit long,” but don’t be disheartened by these comments! They can be really useful, and they’re almost always accompanied by something like “but it didn’t matter, because you were awesome!”

6. Look forward.
Everyone is nervous before their first ever reading — but I have good news for you! No other reading you do in the future will be anywhere near as nerve-wracking as the first. Many people told me this as I was preparing for my first reading — that every reading thereafter is a piece of cake — and in my freaked-out state of mind I thought, “yeah right!” However, when I got onto the stage at my second ever reading, all the problems that had plagued me at my first reading — blushing, quivering voice, being unable to make eye-contact with my audience — disappeared. I was playing to a much bigger crowd second time around, but none of it fazed me — I loved every second. So look forward! The thought of your first reading may keep you awake at night, but it’s a big milestone, and once you pass it, it’s plain sailing.

Any seasoned readers want to offer any other pointers? Tell me about your first ever poetry-reading experience. How did it go?

Check out the other articles in the Dear Poetry Newbies… series!

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You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

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