Sharing the writing experience... online
By Roger N. Taber, poet
I enjoyed Naomi Booth's article, "The Value Of
Sharing the Writing Experience" (fwn
33, November 2005), and agree that sharing the writing experience is
a valuable learning tool for all writers. However, as a poet with a growing
reputation in the United Kingdom and overseas, I have to say that my own
experience of writing groups and workshops has been very different.
Early forays into both were not in the least
encouraging. Group members were invariably very precious about their writing and
took constructive criticism as a personal insult. Workshop leaders were too
didactic, leaving little room for the development of individual style. Even so,
I continued to write.
I have found sharing my poetry and prose with
people I have got to know on the internet an invaluable experience. Possibly,
people feel less inhibited about speaking their minds online. By the time I
published my first major poetry collection in 2000, I had posted poems on
various websites, including my own Home Pages. I even had a following of sorts,
so felt encouraged to go ahead. I created my own imprint and self-published my
first collection of some 200 poems, funded by winnings from a poetry
I recently published the fourth title in my
And Human Remains" quartet. Book sales and (some) fees from poetry readings
around the United Kingdom have paid for the last three volumes and I continue to
receive positive email feedback from readers worldwide.
I also continue to submit to various poetry
publications. The more you write, the better at it your become. And don't feel
discouraged by rejections. An editor may well reject a poem simply because it is
not what he or she has in mind for future issues. Every publication has its own
character and style. Rejection does not necessarily reflect the quality of a
poem. Submit elsewhere and – who knows?
Since 1993 I have contributed 400+ poems to
various publications in the United Kingdom and overseas; many of these were
initially rejected, often because I didn't do my homework properly and didn't
research the style of the publication to which I was submitting. I have now
contributed 400+ poems to various publications worldwide – excluding poems that
only appear on internet websites or in my own collections. Anyone can be a poet
– but to be a published poet you have to believe in yourself and work hard at
As a gay man, I include poetry on a gay theme in
all four collections. My poems tackle a variety of themes relevant to the 21st
century so why not gay sentiment and issues? Many editors / publishers still run
a mile from gay-interest material; perhaps they feel readers might be offended
or maybe it is simply because they genuinely believe gay-interest material is
better sidelined to some obscure gay anthology that heterosexual poetry lovers
will never get to read. Whatever, I am delighted to have proved them wrong. My
collections do well (for poetry) and, besides selling well in the United
Kingdom, I also sell copies over the internet worldwide. Moreover, I receive as
much encouraging email feedback from heterosexual as gay readers.
So come on you wannabe poets – get writing.
Roger N. Taber
Roger N. Taber was born in Kent (UK) on December 21st 1945 and graduated from the University of Kent in Canterbury, 1973. A librarian by profession, he now lives in London. Most of the poems in his collections have appeared in various poetry magazines and anthologies in the UK and overseas (the USA, Canada & Australia) 1993
– 2003; many were written much earlier. A gay man and partially deaf, he includes gay-interest poems in his books alongside others on a variety of themes
– including deafness
– relevant to the 21st century. More details of his books and some reader reviews can be found on
I found a literary agent
interview with author J. B. Bergstad
J. B. Bergstad recently acquired an agent
using firstwriter.com's database
of literary agencies. We asked him about his writing, and how he found
fw: Thanks for taking the time to talk
to us, and congratulations on placing your book with a literary agency. What is your book called, and what is it about?
JB: The title of my novel is Hyde’s
Corner. The primary story unfolds between
1938 and 1946. The setting is Sundowner County and Hyde’s Corner, Oklahoma. The
novel details the life and times of Selmer Burks. He is a man driven to the
brink of madness, first by the loss of his immediate family; then by the death
of his wife and daughter. The rape and slaughter of the Burks family is a result
of greed, thievery and imagined accusations. Cedric and Jared Hyde seek
vengeance. But Selmer Burks is elected Sheriff of Sundowner County, Chief Law
Enforcement Officer of Hyde’s Corner. A bastard grandson, product of his
daughter’s rape and death, saves Selmer from total insanity. Selmer Burks embarks
on his own path of bloody revenge against the Hydes. The people of Hyde’s Corner
learn that, for Selmer Burks, all “high and mighty” people are “Hydes”.
fw: Where did you get your idea from?
JB: Hyde’s Corner started with a simple phrase: “You can’t stop a pack of
fools from doing foolish things”. This is generally how most of my novels and
short stories start; a few words or a phrase begins the process. A sequel,
Hyde’s Corner, The Aftermath, has been structurally written. Eight other novels
are also in various stages of construction. I like the freedom of working on
several manuscripts at the same time. It keeps imaginative juices flowing for
all the storylines.
fw: Once you'd got your idea, how did
you go about turning that into a novel?
JB: The best way to go about writing a novel is write it. Write, write, write
and write some more. Nothing you write the first time will or should remain the
same. Re-reading and editing are part of the process. It took a year and a half
to complete a first draft of Hyde’s Corner. I edited my “first draft” dozens of
times during the writing. That beginning was
completed on August 23, 2004, at 12:36 A.M. I signed with my agent on October 2,
2005. In the intervening fourteen months I rewrote the beginning, middle and
end of Hyde’s Corner so many times I couldn’t hazard a guesstimate regarding the
fw: Had you written anything before
JB: I began writing in my early twenties. I’m now sixty-seven and still
learning. Reading is the most valuable tool in mastering the craft. If you can’t
find time to read, you’ll never write coherent prose. Like him or not, Steven
King first advanced that premise and it is a truth accepted by the best in the
literary arts today. I have yet to be published in the mainstream press. I am
confident my agent will accomplish that task.
fw: Do you think the fact that you
didn't have a publishing history in the mainstream press made it harder for you
to secure an agent?
JB: It stands to reason that publishing credits are a plus when agent shopping.
Agents are business people. Agents earn a living selling manuscripts and making
a commission. Small press and / or noteworthy publishers are a big plus. Even more
important, however, is an author who has a target audience, a saleable manuscript
and a marketing plan.
fw: Did you start looking for an agent
straight away, or did you try querying publishers directly?
JB: Once confident I had a “presentable manuscript”, I began soliciting
agents. After my first fifty or so rejections, I tried querying publishers
interested in my novel’s genre. After thirty or so publisher rejections, I went
back to the drawing board. Each rejection should teach a lesson, thus improving
your chances the next time. Researching agents and publishers is a most critical
criterion to follow. Keep in mind the words “Presentable Manuscript”.
fw: What kind of research did you carry
JB: Lot’s of research: Jeff Herman’s
Guide to Book Publishers, Editors
and Literary Agents; Kathryn S. Brogan’s
2005 Guide to Literary Agents;
Sarah Parsons Zackheim’s
Getting Your Book Published For Dummies; Predators and
Editors; and many other writers' websites too numerous to mention. But the only
reference and research that paid off was done through firstwriter.com.
fw: What made firstwriter.com
so effective for you?
provides an excellent database of agents and
provides a simple method of choosing genre, sub-categories of genre, country of
origin, etc. Extremely helpful is the automatic email update feature. When a new
agent or publisher is added to the database,
firstwriter.com will email the
information to individual members based on the criteria they provide. My agent’s
new listing was sent to me. The rest is a history I’m looking forward to with
fw: What would you say was the most
important thing you learned when approaching agents?
JB: Agents are busy people. At least the successful ones are busy. Most are
looking for new material, but they want to be solicited on their own terms. The
resources I mentioned previously list agents, the genre they handle, how they wish
to be contacted and a few other individual wants and needs. I can’t emphasise
the point enough... follow agent guidelines to the letter. DO NOT DEVIATE. Don’t
do cutesy things with colours or fonts to get attention. You simply prove you’re
an amateur by doing so. Know how to format a manuscript, know what font and font
point to use. The books I’ve mentioned and many other writer
websites have tutorials on query letters, manuscript format, synopsis
preparation, chapter outline, etc. Study and research everything before
approaching any agent or publisher. If you don’t appear professional your
presentation will be recycled without one word being read.
fw: How many agents did you have to
approach before you met with success?
JB: I’ve spent fourteen months researching agents and querying those handling
modern historical fiction. I’ve approached over two hundred agents in that
fourteen-month span. While I waited for replies I re-read and rewrote Hyde’s
Corner, my query letters and synopsis. It was and remains a tremendous learning
process. Each agent maintains their own criteria. Be prepared to rework what
you’ve already done for someone else. If you get sloppy, or try shortcuts,
you’ll lose every time.
fw: That's an important point. All too
often, writers try spamming agents with a mass mail approach, and end up burning
all their bridges before they've even got off the ground. You really do need to
give individual attention to each approach, but did you find that giving that
level of care to each query – making that emotional investment – made it worse when you were rejected?
JB: I’ve received over two hundred rejections. Each one hurt, but I tried to
understand why I failed to connect. You may find a tiny minority of agents
who’ll give a clue regarding their rejection of your query. Most often your
query didn’t grab their interest. That bit of magic must be done in the first
two sentences. After that, the issue is most often a lost cause. Most rejection
will be nothing more than a printed forum. Some individuals just scratched "No
Thanks" in a
corner of my query. If the writer enquires in a professional
manner – if he or she has followed the agent guidelines – then there’s no excuse for
that type of discourtesy.
fw: Which agency signed you in the end?
signed with The Joan West Literary Agency
& West Literary Agency]. Doctor West reviewed my query and
requested sample chapters and synopsis. She also required I provide a
comprehensive marketing plan for Hyde’s Corner. After reviewing that material,
she sent an offer of representation. I reviewed her contract. It was done in
plain English, equally fair to both the author and
Joan West Literary Agency. I
may appear disingenuous, being a first time fiction author at sixty-seven. But I
had an opportunity to sign with two other agents before Doctor West accepted me.
I turned both offers down. I did so because the agencies asked for up-front
money. Beware of anyone offering a contract on that basis. Beware of any agent
suggesting your manuscript needs polish, offering either an in-house editorial
service, or book doctor.
fw: What do you think was the critical
factor in winning this agent over to your work?
JB: I think, after two hundred rejections, I finally got my query close to
correct. I believe the concept of Hyde’s Corner intrigued Doctor West. After
reviewing the research I’d done regarding my target audience, and seeing my
marketing plan and past experience, I believe she chose to take a chance on me.
I choose to believe Doctor West is a bit like me, something of a risk-taker. If
she believes in a project she has the tenacity and perseverance to give it her
best shot. Doctor Joan West, in my opinion, is someone the author and the editor
can rely on to play it straight from the beginning. It’s impossible to predict
whether Doctor West and I will prove a good match. So far she has performed in a
fantastic manner. She has submitted to several publishers and reported each to
me. She has given me the benefit of her experience and advice. At this point I
hope we have a long and profitable relationship.
fw: What have you found to be the
benefits of having an agent? Has it all been high-powered meetings in New York?!
JB: Having someone believe in you is all encompassing. For a writer, having a
professional agent believe in you is a confidence building experience. For a
younger individual the experience might result in a dangerous and destructive
ego trip. For me, at this time in my life, it’s a confirmation. It’s an
acknowledgment of my ability to tell a story in a marketable manner. For me
that’s a great gift and I’m grateful. A writer should expect performance from
their agent. Just as the agent should expect performance from their client.
Doctor Joan West is doing her job at present and apparently doing it well. I
don’t expect any meetings in New York, either high or low powered. Of course if
the Pulitzer or Nobel should be offered for Hyde’s Corner, I’m sure my wife,
Doctor West and I will be making a few trips to New York and elsewhere. I
wouldn’t recommend holding your breath, folks.
fw: Do you have any general tips or advice for other writers trying to get
published / get an agent?
JB: For the beginning author, I believe I’ve covered the most important tips
and lessons I’ve learned in my previous answers. If I had to stress the most
important ingredient in procuring a publisher or agent, it would be
professionalism on the writer’s part. Attention to detail in manuscript format,
following guidelines to the letter, spell checking again and again... and
whatever you do NEVER MISSPELL THE AGENT OR EDITOR’S NAME. Never send a
manuscript unless directed to do so. When sending queries make sure you address
the agent or editor by name. Dear agent / editor just finds the round file. Most
of us, having completed a novel, believe we’ve written a great masterpiece. Some
will be so confident in the magnificence of our work we will badger
agents / editors with phone calls, emails and faxes ad-nauseam. Those who choose
to follow that road will fail miserably. Instead, prepare to edit and edit
again. Prepare to accept changes and harsh criticism. At the end of the day be
professional. Adhere to that principle and you will be taken seriously. You will
be treated as a professional. If I remember correctly there are only seven plot
scenarios and forty-seven different situations in which to use those plots. Our
unique masterpieces are not that unique. What is distinctive is your turn of a
phrase. How well you’re willing to listen. How hard you’re willing to work.
fw: What next? Do you have any publishers in the pipeline – or more books?
Where are you taking your writing now?
JB: What next the man says? I have enough projects to keep me busy for some
time. I’ve pitched an idea to Doctor West about a biographical, “life in the
fast lane” type of book. I’m doing a first interview with the subject this week. We’ll see if there’s a story
to tell. You can be sure I will continue to write and learn and expand whatever
ability The Old Man Upstairs has chosen to give me.
fw: Thanks for taking the time to share
your story with us! I'm sure it will prove an inspiration for other writers out
By Penelope Adams
My favourite time and place for writing – and
it's not a pretty sight! – is all morning, in bed, in my pyjamas, on my laptop,
with my very lazy ginger cat snoozing on the duvet next to me. This works for me
because my brain loses its edge from about midday onwards. (I don't write in bed
in summer, but in winter it's the only place to be.) Around midday I usually get
fidgety and have to move to some other activity.
Usually the morning's work starts around 7:20,
when the noise made by my husband getting ready for work wakes me up. If I'm not
feeling very sparkly I'll stay in bed till about 8, but rarely longer. At some
point in my childhood I must have thoroughly absorbed the puritan work ethic,
and this has always prevented me from sleeping late – no matter how much I want
to or need to! What gets me out of bed is the prospect of reading emails from my
friends in the United States, Canada and down-under. Once the laptop is in front
of me – and unless I am suffering a total idea-drought – writing starts up
automatically. A plate of cereal and several cups of coffee punctuate the
morning, but otherwise it's a period of effortless absorption.
At first I felt that slopping around in pyjamas
all morning was regretfully sluttish, and even felt bad about it, but since then
I've realised that stopping to shower and dress etc. can break the flow of ideas
so thoroughly that you may not get them back for weeks. So I've stopped being
all girly about it – after all, you can take a shower at any time, whereas your
thoughts have to be pinned down as and when you have them. I am not strict with
myself about how long I write for in one sitting, in spite of my preference for
mornings. If I wake up out of sorts I'll usually go to the gym instead (because
there's no productivity without sanity, and exercise keeps me sane), so on those
days I only write between midday and 2:30. (It's rare that I can write after 3
in the afternoon, unless I'm completely carried away by my subject: I have an
illogical aversion to the whole period from 3 to 6pm. It's just a blah! time of
day and seems to drag on forever.) Sometimes an idea will strike me during the
evening while I'm slumped on the sofa, but on the whole this is not as
productive a period as mornings. Occasionally, during the day, if I'm feeling so
edgy that even the gym doesn't appeal, I go to a coffee-bar and write there –
still on the laptop – while drinking way too much coffee.
Experience has taught me to jot down good ideas
or good lines immediately – even if it's the middle of the night or I'm already
doing something complicated like cooking a meal. This is vital for me because as
long as I have some germ of an idea to be getting on with, I can settle in and
do the writing. The worst thing that's ever happened to me was finding – for
about a week – that I had no more subject-matter left. I was boring myself to
tears! And as I write opinion-based nonfiction, this was very bad news. Happily,
it culminated in a sleepless night during which I started three pieces at once,
and jotted down ideas for two more.
That's what the process "looks like" for me.
Almost as boring as watching snooker on TV – but the work gets done, and until
my first book gets published, that's all I ask!
writers at firstwriter.com
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