Category Archives: Writing

Start-up Magazines and the Borders Writing Scene.

I’ve been writing and thinking a great deal about poetry magazines lately, and part of the reason for that is we seem to be going through something of a literary Golden Age as far as literary journals go. Certainly up here in Scotland, anyway, where there’s been a real proliferation of magazine start-ups attempting to cater to a different sort of audience. I’m thinking about mags like The Grind, The Poets’ Republic and The Write Angle, magazines with a DIY ethic/aesthetic, superb writing and, most interestingly of all, a definite regional identity. By this I don’t mean simply that they’re ‘parochial’ – what I’m getting at is that these kinds of magazines are at the heart of a particular local scene, whether it’s that of Falkirk, Glasgow or Stonehaven.

That interests me, principally because no such magazine exists in the Borders, or ever has, as far as I know. There are many possible reasons for that, most of which are too depressing to contemplate, but what I’d be most interested to find out is which way round these things are apt to happen – does a thriving local literary scene bring about the existence of a magazine, or is the magazine itself the prerequisite for bringing together a viable writing community?

This is not, by the by, a rhetorical question. If there’s anyone out there who has some thoughts, I would love to hear them. You see, I’ve been having a wee think lately about setting up a Borders equivalent to the kinds of magazines I mentioned above, and the idea, to me, seems like a good one. There’s definitely a ton of great writing out there which is currently going unpublished – I don’t think for one moment that the market is saturated quite yet. But a magazine would also be a great conduit for linking up the Borders writing scene with that of the rest of the country.

The Borders has a great deal to offer Scotland, in literary terms; there are some fantastic individuals writing out of here. And there’s a lot going on, albeit in an often piecemeal kind of way. But there isn’t really much in the way of overall cultural structure or strategy. A literary magazine could not only serve as a kind of focal point around which to cohere a community, but it would also open up the two-way conversation we need to be having with the rest of the country (that’s you guys out there) about what we could be bringing to your party, and what you could be bringing to ours.

So, that’s the plan. You’re probably safe to go away now and get on with a few things. Do the washing up. Get the mould out of the windowsill. But, you know. Somewhere along the line. Watch this space.

On Starting Out.

My first poetry pamplet, Intae the Snaw, comes out this month, and it seems like this is the point at which to start giving it the whole it’s-been-a-long-road shtick, talk about how deep into theIntaeTheSnaw fibre of my bones I’ve had to dig to excavate these poems, the editorial to-and-fro. But, in fact, the whole process has been relatively disappointing, as far as personal psychodramas go. From first contact to final product the entire business has taken nine months, and as far as editorial conflict enters into it, all that’s happened is that I’ve been very gently schooled by my editor, the fantastic Meirion Jordan, in the difference between putting together an actual collection and just jamming an armful of manuscripts in a tattered suitcase and jumping up and down on the lid.

So, in a sense, I’ve really got exactly zip to say about the process of putting together a pamphlet. I imagine the production of other collections in other places have been rather more fraught affairs, but that’s not my experience. My experience has been fun. Maybe Gatehouse Press are doing it wrong, or something. My suspicion is that I’ve been somehow short-changed, that there ought to have been more shoutings-at, more tears.

The main thing I’ve taken out of the process is the value of reading and submitting to poetry magazines. When you’re first starting out, you get this advice rammed down your throat, and it just seems like a pretext for other poets to bilk you out of your money whilst telling you how rubbish you are. Which it is. (No, not really.) There are a load of reasons, as a writer, to engage with the magazine scene – track record, peer feedback, yada yada – but the reason that many folk who are starting out submit to magazines is because they kind of hope something might come of it.

Which is not, by the way, an ignoble thing to wish for. It’s not even unrealistic, so long as you don’t expect anything to happen the first time you get into a magazine, or the fifth, or the five hundredth. If there’s something to what you’re writing, someone will notice, eventually. The problem is, you don’t know who or where those people are, never mind what magazines they edit and/or read.

In the beginning it’s easy to have the feeling that the whole of “writing” is one vast cohesive bloc which is leagued entirely against newcomers, i.e. you. Conversely, when you do manage to get something published somewhere, it’s very difficult to understand why news of your success hasn’t spread like wildfire across the entire literary scene. Once you’re in, you’re in, surely? But somehow, The X Journal don’t care that you were in the most recent edition of Y Quarterly. As in Kafka, the door that you were trying to get through, and the doorman you were wheedling your way past – they just lead to another door, another doorman. The party that’s happening somewhere within sounds just as distant as ever.

And all of the above, by the way, being best case scenario – which is to say, that you’re committed to writing and to improving as a writer. If you already think you’re the finished article, you probably gave up on reading this a few paragraphs back. You didn’t like hearing that your inevitable fame might take time or hard work.

For time and hard work will certainly be involved. Even if you one-hundred-per-cent enjoy writing one-hundred-per-cent of the time, you’d have to be some kind of masochist to enjoy submitting to magazines, and being rejected; sometimes kindly, more often facelessly, occasionally even, in a bizarre Hitchcockian nightmare, under the wrong name, for stuff you never even did. And yet submit you must, widely and often, to have any hope of finding readers who get what you’re on about.

I had no particularly good reason to send my stuff to Lighthouse, Gatehouse’s literary journal. Scots translations of Chinese poetry; that’s pretty niche, and not necessarily what you would expect to go over well with a relatively new literary journal based in Norwich. But it was a really good magazine – I enjoyed what they were publishing – and it was worth a spin that if their editors and I liked the same kind of poetry, my poetry might also be the kind that they liked. Without reading Lighthouse, I would never have submitted there, never have been published there, and never have wound up with a pamphlet being produced there.

Which is to say, reading magazines shouldn’t be a chore. No matter how disenchanted you might think you are with the poetry scene, there are magazines out there whose editors are on your wavelength. Finding them, submitting to them, hopefully being published by them – these are hugely exciting things. Reading a magazine you don’t enjoy – well, that bites, but it’s better than submitting to that magazine blind, getting back an impersonal rejection letter, and then being furious at being turned down by a magazine you now realise you don’t even like.

Submitting to magazines can feel like going to them cap in hand, but it needn’t. Sending something you wrote to a journal is the sincerest form of flattery you can give what are (no doubt) its hard-working and underappreciated editors. I like what you are doing and I want to be part of it. And it’s in your power to give. Whether your writing is ready yet or not, your support and interest is worth a lot to any magazine. Just make sure and give it to the right ones.

Writing and Politics.

Seems like as good a day as any to write about politics. Well, about writing and politics anyway.

In the Scottish Borders, political engagement is rife amongst the artistic community. The vast majority of those in the creative industries down here, particularly writers and musicians, are politically active one way or another, with those on the left outnumbering those on the right something like four or five to one. I won’t attempt to guess why that is – let’s just assume my explanation involves a long, self-aggrandizing list of the shared virtues of the creative community and the political left – but it’s an important and encouraging fact that the resurgence of engagement by Scottish voters is also paralleled amongst our artists.

I’m not saying that art itself should be politically motivated. But I do think it should at least be politically aware. Orwell famously wrote about the impossibility of remaining an “artist” in a fascist state, of somehow rising above the murky political landscape, of keeping your mind clean in a dirty world. There are plenty of reasons why that’s not practical, but there are just as many reasons why it’s not desirable.

Politics isn’t about elections and parties and constituency boundaries and legal precedent. Politics is simply the science of how we are to live together. That’s one of the most basic values we as human beings have to think about. It’s so core to having a coherent worldview, so vital to our sense of who we are (collectively and individually) and where we’re going, that without it there’s no basis to anything we do. I guess what I mean is that anyone who is “not bothered” about how human beings agree to treat each other really has no business writing. They don’t have anything to say.

Everybody has got their little internal checklist of what it means to be a “proper” writer. Snobbish and exclusive things, sometimes, like having an agent, or a proper income. Me, I think being serious about reading and serious about writing are all that’s needed. You definitely don’t need to be serious about politics to write something good. That’s only for if you want to write something important.

On second thoughts…

I wrote something a wee while ago about full time writers vs. writers who have other jobs. There was, however, one aspect of it that I didn’t really give much thought. Now, whenever you read a blog or a book or whatever on this subject, the vast majority of the advice will be about finding time to write, usually vague anodyne rubbish about making time or daft suggestions about cutting back on the other things that you do, such as sleeping. I all this daft because I do, as it happens, think that time can be found to write if it’s important to you, no matter how busy you are. I say this advisedly because obviously some people have much less time than others, but even on only half an hour a day you can get something done. Well, you can get some writing done, anyway. And that’s the thing.

Previously I was coming from a point of view whereby being a writer merely meant being someone who writes. What actually happens to that writing once it’s done, whether it goes straight on the shelves at Waterstones or straight in the drawer never to be seen, didn’t really cross my mind. Some folk have fairly specific ideas about what they want to happen as a result of their writing, though, often involving money and fame and so forth. No harm there, but that’s where the lack of time really does start to kill.

I have time to write, no problem. I don’t have eight hours a day, or anything like that, and there aren’t many days where I produce much more than a thousand words, but the time is there. What I don’t really have time for is all the other stuff, events and festivals and Twitter and (if you look at the timeline on the right) blogging. If all my hopes for the future were pinned on making millions from my writing, I’d be up against it.

I don’t really have any advice or tips or anything like that. I’m not trying to be constructive, just backbiting a little. Because it’s not just the hours of time devoted to self-publicity I’m talking about, it’s the hours of time devoted to learning how to be good at self-publicity. I hardly have enough time to get good at writing, never mind anything else, and if I did, you can be sure marketing is about the last thing I’d be trying to pick up. I’ve always wanted to learn Czech (don’t know why), can’t play chess endgames, and have a left foot that’s only good for standing on. My entire personality is a leaky ship sinking slowly to the bottom of the ocean; I’ve enough on my plate trying to plug the gaps, never mind taking on fresh passengers.

Zen in the Art of Writing.

So, things have been quiet recently. Quieter, anyway. I have a couple of stories coming up in the next issue of The Eildon Tree, but that’s it. Mainly I’ve been working on redrafts for the plethora of deadlines coming up at the end of the month. It’s reminded me of Ray Bradbury in ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’, and his insistence on zest and gusto in the writing process.

On one hand, it seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it, that if you’re not enjoying writing it, no-one else is going to enjoy reading it. If you don’t actually like what you’re working on, why are you doing it? That much is straightforward.

But as against that, there’s the whole Wordsworthy thing about poetry being emotion recollected in tranquillity. Most of the early blunders of writing come from excessive enthusiasm/optimism about a project blinding you to its faults. What you’re initially aiming for (or I was, anyway) was a certain level of detachment from the act of writing, to not feel as if the whole process was life or death. Once I got to the stage where I could just write without self-romanticising, I was able to just scribble away for hours on end and not worry about it. Life, it seemed, was good.

I suppose what I’m saying is that no matter how you go about it, some writing is just dead on the page. It’d be easy to say that it’s because of too much zeal or too little gusto, but it’s simply a fact of business. I can work away for several drafts on what seems like a nice little story with some nice little characters and some nice little ideas, then read it and realise straight away that it’s boring. Not bad, not silly, not self-indulgent, just boring.

It happened to me just the other day while I was redrafting. After working my way through to the terrifically unsatisfying stopgap ending, I realised that I couldn’t think of a better ending because I simply didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them. All the endings I could come up with were perfectly acceptable, but I couldn’t write them because they didn’t matter to me. None of it did.

You’ve got to write through the bad stories to get to the good ones, I already knew that. I guess I never thought there’d be a stage where I was writing through the mediocre stories too.

Knowing When To Quit

So. You’ve written that first draft and decided that there’s something to it. How long do you have to keep at it before you can decide that it’s either a) finished, or b) unfinishable?

On first starting out as a writer, the temptation is to decide that a text is final and irrevocable the moment you set it out on a page. Your writing is precious, sacred even, dictation taken direct from the mouth of God; bad writers may compromise, make edits, but you? You hit it out of the park first time, every time.

A good stage to leave behind, but the incessant tinkering you then take up isn’t much better. Every text is a free-for-all, with everything up for grabs. Like Joyce, you can spend all morning switching around two words, then all evening switching them back again. Time spent editing is never a waste, not really; but if you could have written two or three new stories in the time it’s taken to bring a substandard one up to scratch, it’s not really an efficient use of your time. Most of us have a limited amount of time to write, and we can’t really afford to squander it in this way; yet we do. Why do we do it? Well, here are my own personal faulty rationales for sticking with something long after you should have stopped.

You’re on a roll. You’ve written two, maybe three good stories in a row, and you definitely feel like you’ve turned a corner. Therefore, you are clearly incapable of writing bad prose ever again. Whatever the vital spark is that’s going to bring this story to Pulitzer-winning life, YOU ARE GOING TO FIND IT.

Darling-harvesting. Killing your darlings doesn’t just mean getting rid of a good metaphor, or binning a nice turn of phrase. It can sometimes mean jettisoning an entire story altogether. If the ship is sinking, the passengers are going down with it. You can’t save an entire story for the sake of a couple of lines.

But I need it for… There’s a specific reason you need this story to work. Maybe there’s a competition on the theme of “returns” or something, and it’s the only one you’ve got that fits. In that case, you’ve already lost. Forget the competition. Move on.

It won’t be GREAT, but… Of course, one of the most exciting things about writing is that you never know if what you’re working on is going to be great. Pre-emptively deciding that whatever you’re working on is going to be brilliant or significant is one of best reasons in the world for putting it aside. But if you’re labouring over something that has clearly gone badly wrong just in order to make it borderline readable, you’re wasting your time. (Kind of – it’s a good exercise, and it might stop you from making the same mistakes again in the future. But it’s also depressing, and winds up making you feel like a bad writer or, at the very least, the long suffering Jekyll to the madcap Hyde who wrote this crap.)

The truth is, the easiest way of judging whether you’re spending too much time on something is thinking back over your best stories, and how long it took you to write them. Relatively to the length, odds are it probably wasn’t that much time. The myth of instant inspiration is pernicious, but overwriting can be just as damaging and certainly more time-consuming. The other day I started editing a story which has already been published. Why? Know when to quit.

The Old Toad Work

I was reading an interview with George Orwell the other day in which he was asked whether it was desirable that a writer should have a second job, and if so, what sort of job should he have. Orwell (surprisingly to me) was hugely pessimistic about the prospects of any writer trying to earn an honest living from his work, even back in the Forties – and as he was very much against what he referred to as “the burden of an unearned income”, Orwell thought it was imperative that a writer should earn his or her keep in other ways. Orwell’s preference (again, to me surprising) was that writers should not have as their day jobs occupations of a literary or creative bent, since this would leave them too depleted at the end of the working day to write. Instead, he recommended work of a sort neither intellectually nor physically demanding – clerking at a bank or insurance firm, for instance.

It’s a conundrum, anyway. The romantic notion of the starving artist in a garret (itself debunked by Orwell in “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”) is dominant, and there’s even a certain sniffiness about the moonlight crew who work ordinary jobs from 9 till 5. Ideally, of course, writing would be a job sufficiently remunerative as to allow a reasonable amount of financial security. In Scandinavia, for example, state support for writers is miles ahead, although Orwell himself would probably have noted this with some disapproval, since a writer (in his opinion) should be first and foremost divorced from even the subconscious prompting to please his patron. In any event, it’s not even an option for a writer to sell out to the state in the UK, since the state is by and large uninterested.

What I would say about the idea of throwing caution to the wind and writing full-time is that, in my experience, it’s an option almost exclusively open to the middle/upper-classes. I know several working-class folk in other fields of the arts who have taken the plunge and are earning a crust through their art alone, but it’s usually in those arts where there is a certain amount of regular, well-remunerated work and/or “hackwork” available, such as music or photography. But nobody ever hires a poet to declaim at their wedding reception. Novelists don’t get far on “Britain’s Got Talent”. The lack of paid derivative work for writers means that, with very few exceptions, the only way to survive on a writer’s income is to supplement it with another; a job, a pension, a spouse’s work or a parent’s generosity. Financially, the average writer would do better on the dole.

Philip Larkin, who invented and was dominated by the idea of “the old toad, Work” was a librarian. So am I. The greatest poet of the 20th Century (Larkin, not me – that ship has sailed) told his inquirers that society valued his work as a librarian more than his work as a writer. It was broadly true, although Larkin was also the sort who couldn’t see green cheese go past him, nor an honest pound go unpocketed. But he, at least, like me, had a job which allowed him some latitude for writing in his spare time. How is a fast-food worker, or a cleaner, or a postman, or a bricklayer, expected to come home from work and sit down to write? It’s impossible – but we, as a society, need them to. If writing is to flourish again, we need readers and writers of every stripe, books about everything there can be books about. No, we can’t do much about the lack of money in writing, or about the exhausting drudge of minimum wage – but what we can do that would help is dispense with the discouraging fiction that “full-time writing” is a evidence of one’s genuine dedication to one’s art, rather than just an indication of a private income.