Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.
The following is a recent exchange between myself and a poet acquaintance, used here with her permission.
I’m looking for some advice from an expert.
I’m working on a manuscript and, in doing so, have submitted the poems to literary magazines. I’ve gotten a lot of rejections. Also I’ve lost contests when I thought my poems should have at least gotten an honorary mention.
So what to do? If I can’t get poems in magazines, I’m surely not going to get a manuscript or chapbook published. Should I just write because that’s who I am and give poems to friends or what? I don’t have an MFA. I’m 66 and don’t have the desire to get an MFA.
Very confused as to what my next step should be, if any. As you know, I’ve self-published two books. Should I try for a third and to what end? I’m not requested to do readings, and I have more than 50 of my second book sitting on the floor of my study.
If you have time to answer this e-mail, I’d appreciate your advice. I know you’re probably pretty busy. –E.
Your poems are very good but like mine are not contemporary or spectacular. Nor are they the snow-globe type that wins more conservative contests. It is okay. I am thinking of going back to writing what I really think with no holds barred now that no one cares.
Eff contests that will only make you sad and mad.
No accounting for tastes.
Why not volunteer to read more often, or ask organizers who are always looking for someone, and then you will be asked.
Publish a third book because you are made of stars and God wants you to.
I have dozens of unsold books! So does every writer! Love. -Catherine
I love that you think we’re all made of stars and God wants us to publish.
I didn’t think about my poems being contemporary or not. Back in 1983-1986 everything I sent out was published. Now, nothing. And I think my poetry is a lot better now than then.
Well, I think I’ll take your advice and just write “my thing” and not worry about submitting. No, no one cares.
Organizers say they really like my poetry, but never ask me to read even though I continue to tell them I’d like to.
Shown below is a recent poem, “Answer,” and attached is another, “Directions for My Funeral.” I don’t understand why they’re not contemporary.
Dying at home
in her hospice bed,
mother asked for her
Conservative Lutheran Pastor,
wearing cross, carrying Bible.
Pastor, she whispered,
I believe in evolution.
What he said into her ear
wasn’t heard by any of us.
Then she slipped away
into the answer.
Didn’t you win Poetry Center first place? Congratulations. -E.
I really think “Directions for My Funeral” is outstanding, especially the first stanza, but it and the “Answer” poem break three laws of contemporary poetry publishing:
-Don't write about writing.
-Don't write about aging.
-Don’t write about old people dying.
Forbidden phrases: “my mother,” “my father.” Overused, and no one really cares about other people’s parents, especially if dead.
Most editors are in their 30s and 40s and don’t see themselves aging, and in their view only old people die and old people don’t count. Your poems in the 1980s got published because editors were around your age and you probably didn’t write about aging.
Poets who write nostalgia about the barber chair and The Parkmoor restaurant—it is so sad no one wants their poems although I like them. Younger cannot appreciate them.
I won Poetry Center’s 1st in 2010 or 2011 with poem about submarine war movies. It also had a masculine pseudonym on it. Anything that could possibly be labeled as “women’s poetry” is devalued. Try new subjects. -Catherine
I really appreciate hearing this. It makes a lot of things clearer. Again, thanks for your time and advce. You’re the best! Thanks for letting me bend your ear and patience.
What poets should we be reading to get a sense of what they are writing? –E.
Read not poets but litmags. Many are online free or have online samples. I have Rattle magazine deliver me a daily poem. They’re pretty good (except for the children’s poems) and they are what let me know my work doesn’t meet the current standards. Read River Styx to see mid-level poets and poetry. Read Midwestern Gothic to see high-level regional poetry. If they ask for money, invest a few bucks, the education is worth it, and you write it off as an expense.
My favorite poet I wish I wrote like is Cate Marvin. Look up online her poem “A Windmill Makes a Statement.”
Good luck, star person. God loves poetry. -Catherine
This was a record-breaking year for the number of BookEval.com clients served and the number of books my clients published:
35 Tips for Writing a Brilliant Flash Story (nonfiction ebook), by Kaye Linden. See it here.
Icarus Flees the Garden of Earthly Delights (poetry) by Tim Leach. See it here.
Limping Along (memoir) by Mary Elizabeth Moloney. See it here.
Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath (scholarship) by Julia Gordon-Bramer. See it here.
Attitude + Advocacy + Adaptive Technology = Academic Success (nonfiction) by Natalie Phelps Tate. See it here.
No Time to Say Goodbye: A Memoir of a Life in Foster Care (memoir) by John William Tuohy. See it here.
Through the Eyes of an African Immigrant (fiction ebook), by Unknown Melody. See it here.
Sun Sign Confidential: The Dark Side of All 12 Zodiac Signs (nonfiction ebook), by Sylvia Sky. See it here.
It was fun to work on such a great variety of books, with authors who are a pleasure to know and guide. Three forthcoming books, edited this year, are scheduled for publication in 2016. Congratulations to all; finishing a book is a monumental accomplishment. If you're not published yet, I hope to see your book in 2016. Here's what my clients say.
You'll hear a lot about "the writer's voice" and "finding your voice" as a writer. I wish I had a dime for every time I've heard that. It makes me grimace.
Yes, you have a voice, but it will develop entirely on its own as long as you keep writing. This is true for poets, prose writers, fiction writers, dramatists, and all literary artists.
This "voice," when developed, will distinguish you from all other writers just as the voice in your throat distinguishes you from all other speakers. Emily Dickinson's poetic "voice" is not Walt Whitman's. Ted Kooser's "voice" is not Kim Addonizio's. Dave Barry's "voice" is not David Sedaris' "voice," although they are contemporaries and both are bestselling comic prose writers from America's white middle class. You could tell them apart even if the name wasn't on their work.
Stressing and straining to "develop your voice" as a creative writer (poetry or prose) is useless, because it happens on its own, the way your speaking voice happened. And it takes time, just like your speaking voice. You had a baby voice, a child's voice, then your adult voice. As an adult your voice doesn't exactly change but certain nuances appear. Same with creative writing.
Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, and Wilfred Owen, for example, all began by writing frothy crap along the lines of public taste. As they went afield in life and took risks in their poetry, and they kept writing, their mature voices materialized and amaze us to this day.
That's how it will happen to you. You can't rush it, or develop "your voice" by trying, or following advice. You can't stop it from happening, either. A teenage writer's voice, often inspired by or imitating other writers' voices, will develop into a distinctive voice at around age 30. Painters develop their individual styles much the same way and on the same timeline. Picasso, for example, was born in 1881; his famous breakthrough painting, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," was painted in 1907. If you begin artistic ventures as an adult, expect "finding your voice" to take 6 to 15 years.
After your voice finds you, workshopping won't water it down and trying to write like someone else will fail. Your voice will refuse to desert you.
When anyone starts telling writers that it's really important to work on "developing their voice," I leave the room. The only important thing is to keep writing.
Paul McCartney, on his own, wrote cute love songs. No one doubts his greatness—he fathered Sgt. Pepper—but after the Beatles broke up, Paul’s records seemed underweight and underripe. Although backed by hand-picked rock musicians, his forte as a songwriter and recording artist wasn’t rock but pop, or adult contemporary, the music of extended adolescence, played on heartstrings.
It was John Lennon who’d provided the group with gravitas, politics—fangs. “I Am the Walrus”—who’d give that up? He wanted his music to change and alter minds. As a solo artist, John wrote political songs (“Imagine”) and sometimes cynical lyrics: “All I can tell you is, it’s all show biz,” “Instant karma’s gonna get you.” He needed leavening. Without Paul, John became a bore.
George was a conjurer. Post-Beatles he wrote and sang about being the “dark horse,” and covered some oldies, yet his guitar is what we all wait for when we listen. George crossed borders, taking lessons from other greats and cultures. With his guitar and some spot-on songs he hallowed and spiritualized the Beatles. Nobody much wants to listen to a George without his guitar.
Ringo is faultlessly dependable. Underrated because drummers always are, he was the group’s true rocker: He provided the throb. Brand-new Beatles songs were fragile entities until Ringo’s drumming gave them legs. He was never provided with a score or a drum track; he invented his own, is as much a composer as the rest. You can listen to all the Beatles records and never once hear Ringo make a mistake.
Paul was the heart.
John was the conscience.
George had vision.
Ringo had precision.
Go back to the piece you are working on, or a work you quit on, and see if it has all these elements.
John W. Tuohy and his five siblings were sent into the Connecticut foster-care system in 1961, and Tuohy lived in ten foster homes growing up. This year he published No Time to Say Goodbye, a brutal but good-humored Irish-American memoir which holds its own on Amazon.com because he works at selling it. I asked him about marketing. A former political-campaign manager, Tuohy markets through his flagship blog mywriterssite.blogspot.com and subsidiary blogs, and has a keen eye for further opportunities. After a Connecticut social worker wrote him, “Everyone who works or lives in foster care should read this book,” Tuohy and the social worker met with officials to discuss distributing No Time to Say Goodbye to all foster-care workers. Tuohy’s previous books were also nonfiction, mostly about true crime.
Tuohy: I think readers need to identify with you, invest in you, in the first chapter. The reviews on Amazon all say the same thing: “I felt like one of the Tuohy children and wanted to be there and protect them.” That’s so wonderful. People write me and say, “I just finished your book,” and then ask, “Are you okay?” They’re under the impression this happened last week.
I sent out 200 free books, to figure out where my base would be. I thought Connecticut, because it’s small enough, and people there will “get” growing up Catholic because it’s a largely Catholic state. I sent books to all its libraries and newspapers. Only one newspaper story ran. Then I found all the Facebook pages having to do with Connecticut and put a free chapter online. I gave its address on Facebook and said, “If you want to read about growing up in Connecticut,” and many people did.
I published the first nine chapters on all of my blogs. Readers then wanted to know what happened, so they bought the book. The first nine chapters is really only 40 pages; my chapters are short. So it worked. Now I’m posting different chapters and will continue to do that over the next year. It’s a year-long project.
The book’s having success. I set up the marketing to get people talking. I’m on Goodreads. It’s really confusing, takes a lot of patience, but on Goodreads I can take the entire book and break it down into quotes and they’ll put the quotes up for me.
So far nobody has given the book a bad review. Not like my gangster books. I was putting out those gangster books when CreateSpace just got started. That’s how old they are. I was just throwing them out there to be the first guy on that market. They sell steadily, about one a week of each book. But there’s no piece of me in those books. They’re just facts. There’s no emotion. I realize now that that’s what readers want: raw emotion.
Here's a rescue for self-published writers lacking training or talent for book-cover design, but who must design their book covers anyway: Canva.com. I tried it and liked it, re-designing a book cover for an ebook, and it looked much more professional than did the previous cover, which used Kindle's cover tools, and it was easy. Canva.com has fonts and a bank of 1 million images, or you can upload your own. After your cover is finished and downloaded (as a PDF or a zip file) you have 24 hours to return to the site and tweak it.
The free-image bank at Canva.com is lame, and they know it, so there are other images you can purchase for $1. You pay and then they'll let you download your book cover. I spent $3 on a cover design that took me 30 minutes (most of that time looking through the image bank) and is 100 percent better. See the "before" and "after" at right.
Canva.com also has design tutorials and other helpful information.
Self-published books too often have poorly designed covers--not because the author wants it that way, but because the author is an author, and book-cover design, which is a marketing tool, is best done by professional book-cover designers. My one rule for authors designing covers: No amateur images. That means not your daughter's painting, not your snapshot of a barn, not your own photo (a book is not a music CD). Those are death to your book because they're about you. After a book is published it isn't yours anymore. It belongs to the market and the readers.
Julia Gordon-Bramer, poet and prose writer, just published Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath (available through Amazon.com), the first of a two-volume study of occult themes in poet Plath’s Ariel. Julia says, “At 16 I read Plath’s novel The Bell Jar,and her poem ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song,’ printed in the back of my edition. I became fascinated. Almost 30 years later in graduate school, I realized her poetry and prose was full of tarot symbolism. That sealed the deal for me as I’ve been reading tarot cards also since I was 16.” Gordon-Bramer is pictured at right working at the Lilly Library, University of Indiana-Bloomington, where Plath's papers are archived.
What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
Show the world that Sylvia Plath was a lot more than her personal drama. Because the world has held her in this very narrow perspective, we’ve been reading her wrong for the last 50-plus years. Beyond that, I strive to show the real magic of literature, Plath’s model of a divine order.
What were your best and worst moments while writing this book?
The best are in the discovery: when it all comes together and a poem is clarified. This is usually followed by sheer overwhelm that no one has seen it to date (often, Plath had made her meanings quite obvious, but again, everyone wants to read her only as autobiography). The worst moments have been the backlash. People feel they own Plath, that they have paid their dues to know her better than me. And who am I?, they say. Just this crazy Tarot-card reader. So they expound publicly and privately about how I am wrong, without having read my book.
How will you respond to scholars who have said there is no written evidence that Plath was an occultist?
It’s just not true. If you read the memoirs, letters (published and unpublished) and interviews of her friends and of Ted Hughes, it is all there. Her high school journals and art projects are full of Hermeticism. Her mother studied Paracelsus, the famous alchemist. As an adult, Sylvia Plath was photographed with her crystal ball. She journaled about needing to learn more astrology and to get better at reading tarot cards. She practiced hypnosis and meditative techniques with Hughes. She used bibliomancy to choose her apartment in London. Her Isis poster was prominent in every one of their British residences, and her journals show she identified with Isis. I have evidence of palmistry. Hughes claims her poem, “Dialogue over a Ouija Board” is basically a transcribed Ouija session between the two of them. Plath had been seen collecting nail clippings, hair samples, and chanting over bonfires. She’d taken friends to visit the village witch. Traditional Christian symbolism pervades the Ariel poems. It goes on and on. Hughes’ work has been widely examined for occult themes, and it is amazing to me that Plath has not. She didn’t advertise any of this stuff, of course. She had a professional reputation and young children to think of.
What if your readers aren't familiar with Tarot or Qabalah?
In Fixed Stars Govern a Life, I explain what Tarot and Qabalah are, how Plath’s work fits on these structures, and how this unlocks all the meaning within her poetry.
Why did occultism not save Plath from her final despair? Do you think she knew her own fate?
Occultism is not religion, and it’s certainly not salvation. It’s a pursuit. In its best form, it's a journey of personal growth and self-actualization. Part of this journey is destruction of the ego, the old corrupt self. There is some evidence that Plath had had too much of the physical world and took this destruction literally. There is also a good deal of poetic evidence that she knew her own fate.
Why are there so many avid Plath fans?
She was a contemporary American girl. She wrote from her heart. She was wildly ambitious, pretty, artistic, and incredibly brilliant. She lived for boys, beauty, good food, and lying in the sun as much as she did for literature and truth. We can’t help but love her.
What else would you like to say?
Volume Two is about three-fourths of the way complete. My narrative introduction became its own book, The Magician’s Girl, a biography of Plath and Hughes’ mysticism, complete, and I’m seeking a publisher now. I applied my qabalistic decoding to Plath's early work, and that became another book: Plath’s Early Poems. I published an excerpt of these reinterpretations in Plath Profiles. Their editor told me it was the most exciting thing he’d read on Plath in 30 years. Early Poems is also nearly finished. I have had a very busy seven years of work. To keep up on my projects, please visit www.fixedstarsgovernalife.com. I am the most fortunate person on the planet to have been given all the keys to her kingdom. I really believe that.
A true-crime author and historian sent examples of how strangers, via email, feel free to claim his time and work:
“Hi there, I manage the X restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. Our original owners were gangsters from Chicago. I know you write books about gangsters. Any information you can send us would be appreciated.”
“I’m writing a book about gangsters and cited your work in several chapters. I hope that's okay. Would it be possible to ask you some questions via email?”
"Please send me two free copies of your book."
He simply doesn't answer such requests. It's a sign of maturity if authors can say to themselves, "I don't owe this," if they think they don't. Authors are writers who have successfully protected their time.
I looked up ways other prominent authors and experts handled the availability issue. Some websites claim the author "has no personal email address." Some post an email address whose mail they might open occasionally; others have email addresses for queries related to specific books. Some have message boards or forums for postings, or blogs or Twitter accounts that make them appear more interactive and accessible than they are. There are many ways to handle unwanted requests, if that happens to be a problem.