Thursday, June 20, 2013

Should a writer have to "pay their dues"?

There are few things that rile children's writers more than bad celebrity picture books! Think Madonna and Sarah Ferguson, and recent books by basketball and football players (many of which are co-written or ghost-written anyway). Picture books are just about the most difficult kinds of stories to get right, and those writers who are trying to break in and get published know that "competent" isn't going to do it.

Unless you're already famous for something else, in which case the feeling from the "real" picture book writers is that it's just not fair. To some extent, the same sentiment can be heard when it comes to adult writers who decide to pen a YA or children's novel or two. "Like it's not hard enough to get published already," I hear people say. "Why do they have to horn in on our territory?" Then there's the Stephanie Meyers of the world who dream an idea and write vampire books that sell millions of copies, and the writing is not even very good.

Sheesh, what's a writer to do?

Apart from anything else, keep writing. And keep improving. That's really all that is in our control. To work hard and get better. When I do goal setting with students and clients, I have to remind them that "Get my novel published" is not a goal so much as a dream. Write novel, revise novel (many times), research publishers and agents, send novel out. Those are goals. But we end up having little control over whether we'll get published or not when we venture into the world of traditional publishing.

Publishing has changed. Once upon a time (very apt term, if you think about it), a writer wrote - usually many drafts, on a typewriter (which meant re-typing the whole novel each time), with no classes or workshops, no MFAs, no manuscript critique services. Just the writer and their words. Sometimes they had writer friends to bounce off, which is why we have collections of letters - back in the day, they wrote real letters to each other about their processes and ideas and doubts. But mostly they had to slog it out on their own. Publication meant you had taught yourself enough, by simply writing and reading critically, to achieve a certain standard.

It's different now. For a start, everyone wants to be a writer. That's how it seems some days. Everyone thinks they can be a writer. That's why publishers and agents are inundated with manuscripts, especially picture books because they're short and easy, right? Computers mean it's easier to pound out a manuscript, use the spell checker on it, and send it off. If a publisher or agent has the time to wade through all those manuscripts, they might find one gem. It's more likely that they will want a query letter instead to try and weed out the competents, incompetents and just plain weird.

And then there is the marketplace. The marketplace is voracious and endless, always wanting something new, something hot, something that will make everyone lots of money. Or win awards. So the idea of an apprenticeship in writing, and even Malcolm Gladwell's theory of 10,000 hours of practice to become a master, can be flipped in an instant when someone comes along with a great, original idea. Or a pretty good idea that can be wrestled into an immensely sell-able one.

What are all those other writers supposed to do? They're "paying their dues", learning, writing, rewriting - why doesn't that deserve the rewards?

I think there are two things at play - one is most definitely the marketplace. Even publishers can be astounded by a book that just takes off, but they also know to hedge their bets with things like trendy series and books "just like that one selling a million". But the other thing is creativity. It's not something that can be pinned down - it's like a gorgeous butterfly. Marvel at it in the air or perched on a flower, but stick a pin through it onto a board and you've just got a pretty dead thing.

If we keep working and writing and rewriting, we are learning. If we keep reading and dreaming, we are learning and growing. Feed your creativity, do the work. Most of us do have to "pay our dues". How else are we going to become better writers? And then hope that when that amazing idea comes fluttering past, that you can capture it without killing it, and make something out it that is publishable!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What poem has stayed with you?

Recently, I picked up a poetry collection I've had for a while and dipped into (as you do - one of the pleasures of a collection of poems) - the book was Dear To Me: 100 New Zealanders Write About Their Favourite Poems (Random House NZ, 2007). A lot of the selections were safe - classics by Keats, Byron, Tennyson etc. A few were odd. Some were new to me, and my favourite was Murray Ball's poem about his cat, Horse.

But it did set me thinking about poems that I've remembered for their effect on me at different times in my life. The list would be quite long, but no doubt there are millions of people who couldn't name one poem! Unless it's one they hated from being made to study it at school. Top of my list is the first poem I remember reading at high school - I think this was the first time I realised that poetry didn't have to rhyme, and that it could say things I thought were indescribable!


Love is a universal migraine,
A bright stain on the vision
Blotting out reason.

Symptoms of true love
Are leanness, jealousy,
Laggard dawns;

Are omens and nightmares --
Listening for a knock,
Waiting for a sign:

For a touch of her fingers
In a darkened room,
For a searching look.

Take courage, lover!
Could  you endure such grief
At any hand but hers?

Robert Graves

(from Collected Poems, Cassell 1975)

So what poem would be on your list that you've never forgotten, and why?

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

What happens when you stop procrastinating

Nearly all writers procrastinate. The ones who don't are on some kind of deadline! Either publisher-induced or from some outside requirement. How do I know this? From talking over the years to many, many writers, and observing myself. You're not alone.

Procrastination is a manifestation of different things but the one biggie is fear. Fear that what you write will suck. That what you write will cause some kind of upheaval. That what you write will cause you to be REJECTED. I do think that 95% of the time, there is a very direct line between procrastination about your writing and your fear of it being rejected.

It doesn't matter by who. It is likely to be a publisher, but can also be any or all members of your family, your spouse, your second cousin twice removed that you used as a character because she is just so weird. The thing is - it's in your head. And the only person who can get it out there, lay it on the table and dissect its cause, is you. A lot of writers either don't realise this, or don't want to do it.

But what happens when you stop procrastinating? When you actually shove aside every excuse, reason, fear or "block" and write?

You write. And you often write good stuff. You end your writing day feeling terrific. Feeling like a million dollars. Feeling like "why did I spend half my day avoiding that when it was so GOOD?".

Next time you write, and you have that great feeling, this is what you do. You take a few minutes to describe that feeling to the best of your ability. You use every descriptive word, you explore the feeling, you can even draw pictures of it. Then you put it up above your computer or your writing space so the very next day, there it is. You read it. You remember what it was like to write, how good you felt, how the words flowed out despite your struggling.

You read it several times if you need to. And then you write again. Use that feeling. Over and over, use it to remind yourself that yes, writing is hard, but when you do write, the writing itself is the best reward ever. Make it part of who you are as a writer. Celebrate the writing.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Poetrix magazine - our final issue 40

This is the editorial I wrote for No. 40 - I debated writing something different but really, this says it all!

It’s hard to believe we have come to the final issue of Poetrix. It’s not the 40 issues so much as the 20 years! A rough estimate would put us at publishing around 1200 poems in that time, which might not sound like much but it’s been amazing how many people have written and told us that Poetrix published their first poem, or inspired and encouraged them to keep writing and submitting. Many poets who have appeared in our pages have gone on to publish collections; several have appeared in Best Australian Poems anthologies.
In this inaugural year of the Stella Prize, with all the discussion of “do there still need to be awards for women writers”, we stand tall and say “Yes”. We began Poetrix in 1993 because of two things – a survey published in the NSW Poet’s Union newsletter that showed a marked imbalance in male vs female publication and reviewing, and a passed-along story about a male poetry editor who refused to publish poetry by women that he called “domestic suburban vignettes”.

So, as women so often do, we rolled up our sleeves and went to work. Literally. We cooked and catered for book launches and lunches, and earned ourselves enough seed money to start the magazine. We have always put each issue together by hand, around a kitchen table, and kept our production costs low, so we have never needed to go looking for more money. Yes, women are self-sufficient and thrifty, too!

In 2010, an organization called VIDA: Women In Literary Arts undertook a project to count the rates of publication between women and men in many of the writing world’s most respected literary outlets. Sadly, nothing much seems to have changed since we first launched Poetrix 20 years ago. You can see their results at But they believe that by doing this and keeping the conversation going, change will happen. We hope we have been a part of that, however small.

Have we published domestic suburban vignettes? Undoubtedly. After all, doesn’t all the real drama of life happen in the home and in the suburbs? The personal is still political. Women speaking out – about death, grief, longing, dementia, divorce, children, their experiences, what makes them laugh or cry – creates powerful poetry. We don’t much care if that doesn’t speak to men, but we suspect it does, all the same. Why on earth wouldn’t it?

What has kept us going all this time? A sharing of the load, first and foremost. We’ve always had a solid core of 5-6 of us, with others helping. Our editorial process is cumbersome (everyone on the committee for that issue reads everything and votes) but democratic. People get to stand on the table for poems they absolutely love that no one else is keen on. Generally, when the committee numbers 5, it takes 3 definite Yes votes for a poem to get in. It’s the Maybes that cause the most discussion!

It means that a wider range of poems are published than if we just had one person choosing, which is a good thing. Poetry is nothing if not subjective. For the Selected section of Issue 40, each of our current five editors chose five poems from Issues 1-38. That was an enormous amount of reading, with long shortlists, and the proviso that a poet could have only one poem in the Selecteds. Again, you’ll see a wide range of poems here, and sadly not all of our most consistent contributors are represented. But it was an individual choice. Could you choose five from 1200?

In almost every issue, we have published one poem by a Western Women Writer. Poetrix has never been just a showcase for our own work, but we did want to show that we, too, wrote poetry! In Issue 40, we have one from each of us, chosen by the others. And of course we have our usual new poems. We think our Selected section definitely stands the test of time.

You may notice that on our cover are two aeroplanes. One is the Lockheed 5B Vega flown by Amelia Earheart. The other is the de Havilland Gypsy Moth flown by Amy Johnson. Why? Firstly because back in 1993 it seemed logical to us that if a female aviator was an aviatrix, then a female poet must be a poetrix! So for Issues 1 and 2, Adrienne Mazer-Swinton, fellow WWW and artist, drew our planes for the covers. She also drew racing cars, sculptures, spaceships and yachts – all areas in which women had excelled and broken records. We are incredibly sad that Adrienne is no longer with us to share the celebration of 40 issues.

There are many, many people to thank. All of our editors over the years, for a start, and those who helped us earn our seed money. Flashprint (for designing our covers) and the Victoria University Print Room for printing the insides. Tracey Rolfe for doing nearly all of the typesetting over the years, and being our editor-in-charge-of-grammar-and-style (and for the photo on the final issue). 

WWW demonstrating editorial voting!
We also thank our many contributors, some of whom have sent poems in for 20 or 30 issues, and kept sending despite rejections (but their persistence and dedication to craft has paid off, too). We also thank our subscribers. Some have subscribed for almost every issue, and Janet Limb has even subscribed for her three daughters, as well! All of this support, along with wonderful letters, has made us feel like Poetrix has been a worthwhile, valuable thing to do. We thank all of you who have sent letters of sad farewell and thanks when you heard that this was our last issue.

Will we start publishing again one day? We’ll never say no. With the advances in technology, you might see a Poetrix e-magazine one day! But for now, we’re hanging up our poetry editorial boots and slipping back into our poetry writing shoes (the red ones with the high heels and sparkly sequins). What do we wish for you all? That you will keep writing poems about subjects important to women, and important to the world, but more than this – we want you to send them out to all those other magazines and keep the voice of women poets alive and resoundingly loud!

Sherryl Clark, Tracey Rolfe, Lorraine Neate-Benson, Margaret Campbell, Lynette Stevens
Western Women Writers Editorial Committee, Issue 40.

Copies are available for $14 incl postage from Box 532, Altona North VIC 3025, Australia.