5 Rookie mistakes when writing poetry

emotion, plain language, poetry, purpose, rhyme, rookie mistakes, scansion, Uncategorized, writing poetry
“Poetry is like fish: if it’s fresh, it’s good; if it’s stale, it’s bad; and if you’re not certain, try it on the cat.” Osbert Sitwell
A surprising number of people like to write poetry, try to write poetry, or want to write poetry. I’m not quite sure why that is, but a growing number of people find poetry attractive. Here are five mistakes that are quite commonly made when approaching poetry for the first time. The reason I feel qualified to even talk about them is because I have fallen into these howlers plenty of times myself.
1. Thinking strong emotion produces good poetry
The first one is thinking that poetry is all about expressing emotion. In fact, many people seem to believe that the strength of the poetry lies in how intense the emotion is. Here’s an example of a heartfelt poem such as you might stumble across on any of the popular poetry websites:
I brought you apples, pears and oranges
And you threw them back at me.
So I wandered among the bluebells on the cliff.
My heart was bursting inside of me and I wondered if
I could ever regain your love,
Which came to me once like a lightning bolt from above.
Oh where can I go with my passion and pain?
I stand out here in the pouring rain.
You are my love, my heart and my soul.
You are what makes me feel whole.
A gallant effort, and the poem does use metaphor and simile to express… something, but we’re not quite sure what. It appears to be reporting an incident in which the poet, after being pelted with fruit, has a heart attack while wandering about on a cliff in the rain and is hit by a lightning bolt – a  kind of primitive defibrillator, if you will. There is obviously some deep emotion at play here, related to unrequited love, but that doesn’t make it a good poem.
2. Defective scansion
One of the most common mistakes that is made in rhyming poetry is not adhering to credible scansion or meter. Scansion can be described as “the dividing of lines of poetry into feet by indicating accents and counting syllables to determine the meter of a poem. It is a means of studying the mechanical elements by which the poet has established his rhythmical effects.” In other words – at least for rhymed poetry – the usual method is to have a set number of syllables in each line. Iambic pentameter for example has ten syllables in each line, alternating short and long, thus: de da de da de da de da de da.
The poem above doesn’t follow any of these rules. Line one has eleven syllables, line two has fourteen, line three has seven, and so on. It is a common practice to produce poems that rhyme, but don’t scan.
3. Leaving yourself difficult rhymes
The tricky thing about rhymed poetry is that you have to make sure you don’t catch yourself out by giving yourself some impossible rhyme to match. In the above poem the poet falls into this gaping hole right at the start, by giving himself the impossible task of finding a word to rhyme with “oranges.” It is a well-known fact that nothing does rhyme with that word in English, so the poet simply ignores it. The key to successful rhyming is reading ahead and working out what you are going to say and how you are going to say it, to make sure you never paint yourself into a poetical corner.
4. Having no purpose
Another pitfall is starting to write a poem in the grip of some powerful emotion when you don’t really know what you want to say. I’ve done that a number of times and what I generally end up with is a poem that is vague, confusing and rambles on and on with no destination in view. It’s amazing the amount of time you can waste on this kind of drivel!
The best way to keep your poetry fresh and convincing, I’ve found, is to come up with a theme. Can you summarize in a few words what your poem is supposed to be about? If not, you’re probably destined to be sucked irretrievably down into the quagmire of mind-numbing mumbo jumbo (which is just as difficult to say aloud as it is to read in a poem).
5. Using plain language
This may sound weird, because in most other settings plain language is what people should be striving for, but poetry is different. As mentioned, the above poem does use metaphor and simile to get across what the poet wants to say – albeit somewhat clumsily. If you don’t make use of these and other poetical techniques you can end up, not with a poem, but with an advertising slogan, a news bulletin or a simply paragraph of prose.
Here are a few lines from “Dulce et Decorum Est” written by the First-World-War poet Wilfred Owen:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;



That sounds much more effective that simply saying “we were plodding wearily back to the barracks when were attacked with poison gas shells,” now doesn’t it?

Prufrock’s Pal

Detroit Writers Guild, Paul Laurence Dunbar/Maya Angelou Poetry Contest, poetry, Poetry Magazine, poetry prize, Prufrock, songs of hunger, submissions, submittable, Uncategorized
Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC BY 3.0

Last year about this time my wife and I upped and moved from Minnesota to Michigan. The move involved selling our home in St. Paul, transporting all our worldly goods across country, finding new employment, buying a new house and gradually settling down in a leafy backwater of Lansing where we could be nearer to our family. It was a maneuver that called for nerves of steel, courage, belief that everything would turn out right, and nerves of steel… I was fortunate enough to receive translation contracts (I work as a freelance translator of French and Italian books into English) one after another for about five months. That helped pay the bills and was enjoyable to do, but also drastically curtailed my writing activity.
So what I ended up doing during odd moments in a busy schedule was penning a few poems. I tried out various different forms and styles, of both rhymed and unrhymed verse, and after a while I ended up with quite a few of them. So I gradually combined them into a book-length collection which I will probably publish early next year when it is finished. The book is called Songs of Hunger, a name that I stole from a title in an ancient copy of Poetry Magazine from 1915 – the one in which T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” first appeared. I liked the sound of this title, since it captured something of the essence of what I was trying to get across in the poems.
Anyway, before I went ahead and published the book, I wanted to see whether I could get any of the poems accepted by a poetry magazine or journal, so I started sending some of them off to various different publications. Nowadays you can submit work online using an system like “Submittable.” That saves on postage, but it also makes it easier for a magazine to wade through the thousands of submissions they get and reject work out of hand if they want to without every having to open an envelope or unfold a dog-eared manuscript. Of course, there are still a number of stalwart publishers who stick with snail mail. Most of these are relatively polite when they reject your work, saying something like “Thanks for submitting. This doesn’t quite fit our needs at the moment. Good luck submitting elsewhere.” The online systems do send you an email when your work has been rejected and also change the status of your submission from “in progress” to a rather dispiriting “declined.” As you can probably tell, I mostly got rejections.
I also submitted some poems to a few poetry contests. To my surprise, I received notification last month that one of my poems had won 2nd prize in the “Paul Laurence Dunbar/Maya Angelou Poetry Contest” run by the Detroit Writers Guild. This came as something of a relief, because I was beginning to think I was on the wrong track altogether. In fact if you read any of the poetry published in the biggest selling poetry magazines, a lot of it at first glance seems to be a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes: much of it is what is generally called “difficult” and can be well-nigh incomprehensible to the average human – all of which can leave you with the impression that poets only write for other poets. I have nothing against difficult poetry, after all a poem can be all the more rewarding for the reader if they have to work at it a little. But surely one of the main aims of poetry is to communicate. If the reader has to work too hard to understand the poem, he or she will simply give up and wander off to read the sports section of the local newspaper. But that is a topic for another post.

If I hear anything back from any of the other submissions, rest assured you will be the first to know.


How to write a Poem (again)

How to Write a Poem, marketing, poetry, price, sales, Uncategorized
 In April, I published my book “How to Write a Poem: A Beginner’s Guide.” I released it with a price of $2.99 for the ebook version and it began to sell steadily – by steadily I mean about one or two copies a day (occasionally three, sometimes none). The average was probably about one a day. Although fairly modest, this was pretty good news for me, especially considering that I did no advertising at all other than blogging about it and then posting a link to my blog on Facebook. Out of that $2.99 I get about $2 every time I make a sale.
So I decided to do an experiment in order to find out what the most lucrative price for the book would be. I double the price to $5.99. The first day, things continued as normal and I got one sale at the new price. The next day, same thing. One sale. Then for about a week or more there was absolutely nothing. No one, it seemed was willing to fork out six bucks for a copy of the book. After waiting and waiting, I decided to adjust the price again down to $3.99. Hey presto, it began to sell again at pretty much the same rate as before.
One of the things that I am sure helped sales was the fact that one kind purchaser gave the book a 5-star review on Amazon (see above). There are a few other books on the Amazon website with very similar titles to mine, but they are more expensive, some of them are aimed at kids and not all of them have star ratings anyway. I’m sure people must be swayed by that star rating in some way. I know I would be. The main factor, though, is that if you type in “How to Write a Poem” in the Amazon search bar, mine is the first book on the resultant list.
The next thing I will probably do is to advertise the book by posting on my Facebook page and also posting on a number of Facebook groups where you can promote your book. So far all my sales of that book have been random, serendipitous events. It will be interesting to see if there is a spike in the sales figures after some marketing activity on my part.
Anyway, it got me thinking about what kind of people are, in fact, interested in buying a book about how to write poetry. The blurb for my book runs as follows:
This is a practical book. By the time you finish reading it, you will have all the tools you need to write convincing, compelling, and beautiful poetry. Whether someone has asked you to come up with a poem for a special occasion, or you have suddenly been struck by an intense emotion and are looking for a way to articulate it, or you want to express love to your sweetheart on Valentine’s day, “How to Write a Poem: A Beginner’s Guide” provides all the necessary techniques to enable your poem to be a success.
I think there must be a lot of people who like reading poetry either because they remember poems they learned in school or because it can express certain experiences better than the reader can themselves. There are also people who like writing poetry because it is a means of self-expression that prose can’t quite match. This idea of poetry expressing emotion is not new, of course, but quite often, I think, somebody can get the idea that the stronger the emotion the better the poem will be. My own view is that writing good poetry requires training of some sort. It is only after having mastered the tools of the trade, as it were, that someone is ready to express themselves adequately in poetic form. Without adequate practice, poetry – even strongly felt poetry – can fall flat on its face.
That’s one of the issues covered in the book. But, to the same extent, the book isn’t some diatribe on highly-intellectual, abstruse or academic issues. It’s meant to be a fun book to read. It’s also meant to be a practical introduction to how you actually go about writing a poem. Hence the title.

The Sonnet Game

Dalwhinnie, Laphroaig, malt whisky, poetry, Sonnet Game, The snipe in winter, Uncategorized


In February I published my third book of poetry. The book is entitled “The snipe in winter,” named for one of the poems in the book. Most of the poems are sonnets of one form or another – well, mostly just one form. Sonnets are fun to write. Writing a sonnet is a bit like doing a crossword puzzle, working out the rhyme scheme and the number of syllables per line etc. and it adds to the interest of the poem – at least for the writer – if you have to keep all the plates spinning at the same time.
I am fortunate enough to have several close friends and family members who are interested in poetry and for years we have been playing the Sonnet Game. This is a game we invented years ago to while away the evenings once we had finished solving the oil crisis or plotting to overthrow the government. The purpose of the game is to write several sonnets together and here’s how it works:
First of all, you decide together what rhyme scheme will be used for the game, say a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. Each player starts off with a blank sheet of paper and writes down the first line of a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Each player then passes the sheet clockwise. Now each player has a sheet with the first line on it (written by the previous person). They now write the second line of the poem in front of them, again in iambic pentameter and always keeping to the rhyme scheme that has been agreed, and pass the sheet clockwise again. The sheets are passed round until fourteen lines of each sonnet have been completed. Each player gives a title to the poem in front of him or her and you each take turns at reading out the resulting sonnets.
Usually the results are hilarious. You end up with immortal lines like:
“I think upon the face of Ezra Pound
Those coarse, congested thoroughfares of love
That stout resist the facelift from above
Or unforgettable (unfortunately) passages like this:
“The woods beyond the trees beyond my dreams
Are cool and green and dark and filled with sounds
Of flatulating sheep on distant mounds
To prove that love is never what it seems”
Well they seemed hilarious at the time (the time being somewhere round about one A.M. after making prodigious inroads into the contents of a bottle of Laphroaig or Dalwhinnie malt whisky).
We haven’t played the game in a while. We really should bring it back into fashion – that and the malt whisky. It’s a brilliant combination.

How to Write a Poem

$2.99, free verse, Google Keyword Planner, How to Write a Poem, poetry, sonnet, Uncategorized




How to Write a Poem
I’ve just published a book called “How to Write a Poem: A Beginner’s Guide,” which currently retails at $2.99 for the ebook in the Amazon.com website. The paperback should be available in the next few days. I got the idea for the book from the Google Keyword Planner. The Keyword Planner is a tool that can be used to run ad campaigns, but it also includes a facility for evaluating keywords. Essentially, you input a word or phrase and it tells you how many times that word or phrase has been used in the past month as a search term in Google. The phrase “how to write a poem” was used around 22,000 times, so I figured this topic is something that people are interested in and the phrase seems like a popular choice. Since I’ve published three books of poetry, to date, I reckoned I had some valuable experience I could share with other people.
The book starts from the basics (as you may have guessed from the title) and explains what a poem is and where you start when writing one. I also included two very practical walkthroughs – one of a free verse poem and the other of a sonnet – and the book covers the major poetic techniques and how to use them. There are also plenty of examples from famous poets that illustrate the points I’m trying to get across.
Here’s the blurb I used for the book:
This is a practical book. By the time you finish reading it, you will have all the tools you need to write convincing, compelling, and beautiful poetry. Whether someone has asked you to come up with a poem for a special occasion, or you have suddenly been struck by an intense emotion and are looking for a way to articulate it, or you want to express love to your sweetheart on Valentine’s day, “How to Write a Poem: A Beginner’s Guide” provides all the necessary techniques to enable your poem to be a success.
It was a fun book to write and came in at under a hundred pages (in paperback), so I’m excited to find out if there is any interest in the subject.

Ebooks and the single woman

categories, downloads, Four Degrees, genres, humor, Muscle for Hire, promotion, single women, thriller, Uncategorized




Just before the Christmas, I decided to offer another one of my books, ‘Four Degrees’ for free on Amazon. The promotion lasted five days and I must admit that I was fairly confident that the number of downloads would exceed those of the previous promotion I had run with ‘Muscle for Hire’. After all, I reasoned, it’s just before the holidays and people will be buying gifts for family members or looking for an interesting book to read during the downtime before they go back to work. I was wrong. The previous promotion clocked up over 8,000 downloads in the US alone. This time it was only 640 or thereabouts. Nevertheless, that was still another 640 people who would be exposed to my book who wouldn’t have been otherwise. Who knew what would come of it?
Witness my surprise therefore when, after the promotion finished, ‘Four Degrees’ continued to sell in Canada. Not only that, but it rose up the rankings to become number 88 under the ‘Thrillers’ genre and – wait for it – number 6 under the category ‘Single Women’. Quite why the book should have any ranking under ‘Single Women’ is a bit of a mystery to me, since it was filed under the two genres ‘Thriller’ and ‘Humor’, instead.
The book’s blurb goes like this:
Clean Weiss thought it was a simple matter of visiting a shrink for an honest assessment of his state of mind. But when Clean is invited along to group therapy, the shrink in question turns out have other plans besides guiding his patients through the labyrinths of their psyches. Why is Dr. Wright so secretive about his “extra-curricular activities”? Is there something sinister behind the cryptic messages he keeps writing in his notebook? As Clean precipitates headlong towards a final showdown with his nemesis, the stakes become impossibly high and in the end may cost him his life.
This laugh-out-loud hilarious novel has a gem on every page, a villain round every corner and a girl in every port. Smart, funny and deliciously complex, Four Degrees grabs you from page one and takes you on an exhilarating white-knuckle ride through the windmills of a mind on the verge of collapse to the surprising and devastating twist in the tale.
The only thing I can think of to account for the single women reference is that the book sounds – and indeed is – a little bit like a male version of Bridget Jones and that there is some romance in it. Well, whatever the reason, I’m delighted that my book rated so highly among single women, however inadvertently.
My next book, ‘Milano’, is just about to be published. It’s a novel about a heist that takes place in an art gallery in Milan, Italy. Who knows? With Amazon’s baffling categorization algorithms it may become a number-one bestseller under the genre ‘Gardening’!

Works in Progress

I have completed two new novels in the past year: a novel about an art heist that takes place in Italy; and a novel about train robberies that takes place in Minnesota, USA. The first one I need to go back and change. I sent it out to two excellent editors who both came back with the same comment, that a couple of the characters didn’t fit the rest of the story. So at the moment the art heist one is a work in progress and some rewriting needs to be done. That’s fine for me. I like to have some ongoing project to work away at. The second one, about the train robberies had already been half written and abandoned because the plot was too farfetched (see my blog post from Sunday, July 24, 2011, “How I hate that drawing board”). After a major overhaul of the plot, I wrote the rest of the book and it is now under scrutiny by my editors a second time. I am hoping to publish it soon on Amazon.
So, so far, I have published four novels, with two on the way, two books of light verse, and two books of poetry. Whatever next! Who knows maybe I’ll try some nonfiction next time, if I can find a suitable subject. In any case, writing is somewhat of a compulsion. Not everyone is afflicted with the illness, but those who are start to get nervous/irritable/unbearable if there isn’t some writing project to work on. Writing novels in particular is a bit of a catharsis.
I’ve heard several authors say that when they start writing a novel the characters begin to take on a life of their own. They start to develop in unpredictable ways and sometimes a minor character begins to play a major part and what you thought of as a major character starts to recede. When I was writing the train robbery book I remember I had to leave off writing for a few days (I think I got sick or something) but after a while I started to feel a little guilty because I’d left one character in a very tricky situation that would remain unresolved until I started back at the keyboard again. They character was pretty relieved when I finished writing the scene!
In the meantime I am looking for a subject for a seventh novel. If anyone has any ideas, feel free to comment below.

The Results are in…

$2.99, 99 cents, Amanda Hocking, Amazon, JA Konrath, marketing strategy, Muscle for Hire, price, pricing, The Blood Menagerie, Uncategorized

As I mentioned in my previous post, I offered one of my books, “Muscle for Hire” for free on Amazon for five days. It was an interesting experiment. The results were as follows:
A staggering 8,104 people in the US downloaded the free book.
91 people from the UK.
7 people from Germany.
And one solitary hapless reader in France took a chance on the book.
The only marketing I did was to announce on Facebook that the book was being offered for free. The book reached 26th in the Amazon top 100 free books. Actually I think it must have got higher than that because when I checked its ranking downloads had already started to drop off.

An interesting result, though, was that once the free book bonanza was over and the book returned to its usual price, $2.99, sales of the book increased from what they had been before. One thing that accounts for that is that if you manage to reach a decent ranking in the “free” category, it affects your salability in the “paid”category. Presumably the book turned up on more “people who bought this book also bought…” notices, and other Amazon marketing strategies like bundling books together for a lower price. However it happened, people started buying the book. Incidentally, sales of one of my other books went up as well. This I attribute to the fact that I included a free bonus chapter of “The Blood Menagerie” at the end of “Muscle for Hire”.

Another strategy I’m exploring is lowering the price of all my books to 99 cents for a time. The way Amazon’s royalties work is that if a book is priced at $2.99 or above, the author gets 70% of the sale price. Anything lower than that and the author gets only 35%. 99 cents is the lowest sale price that Amazon will allow. A quick calculation show that I would need to sell six times as many books at 99 cents to earn the same royalty as selling one for $2.99. On the other hand, people are more likely to buy a 99-cent book than they are to buy one at $2.99. That’s the theory anyway. Every potential buyer is different and has different things they are looking for when buying a book, so there are no guarantees as to what the best pricing strategy is. However, if I’m more likely to sell more lower-priced books then that will have a beneficial effect on my ranking in the “paid” category, which in turn makes my books more visible to potential buyers. There is an interesting article here on how some authors, Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath included,  are succeeding by using these types of strategies.

One of the other things I did was to smarten up my book covers and change some of the book blurbs. I think this helped sell some of the books too. After all no one will download a book that looks bad and sounds awful, even if it is free.

For the moment I will continue to experiment and see whether it has any affect on sales, ranking or visibility.

Free books, and other tantalizing sweetmeats

Art forgery, free books, KDP Select, Kindle, Uncategorized

I finished writing my fifth novel – the Art Forgery Novel (working title) – just before going on vacation to Scotland. The book came to about 72k words, which is about average for one of my books – or at least has been so far. It was a relief to get it written after so many years. The manuscript has been hanging around in the background since 2005. What remains now is my going over it and editing it into shape. This might involve some rewriting but, on the whole, I am very pleased with the way it has turned out.

I also enrolled my other books in Kindle Digital Publishing’s Select scheme which allows me to run promotions on them by making them free for up to five days. At time of writing, about 150 readers from the US and 25 from the UK had downloaded “Muscle for Hire” from Amazon for free. The idea, of course, is to stimulate interest in the novels, so that customers who read the free book will then go on to read my other books. There is also the vain hope that more people will write reviews of the thing. Actually there are two reviews of Muscle for Hire online at Amazon, both of which are great, so there is room for hope of others.

Both of the above activities – the marketing and the writing – are just a couple of the things that make the whole enterprise of being a writer interesting. One of the main advantages of publishing independently is that you have more control over the process, from the writing of the book to its eventual sale. One of the other big advantages is that royalties for independently published works are always higher that you would get publishing through the more traditional route.

According to reliable sources, the chief elements in whether or not a book will sell once its published come down to these four:
The cover – it has to look professional. I’ve been experimenting with different covers to see whether sales are affected.
The description – it’s one of the things that potential buyers will most look at.
The price – too high and nobody will buy it; too low and earnings will be too paltry to make any difference.
The quality – this comes down to not just how well the book is written but how well it is edited and formatted.
Strangely, marketing is not listed by these reliable sources since there are copious examples of writers who became bestsellers with zero effort put into marketing. That said, could a case be made for “luck” being a factor? I don’t know. There are very few if any reliable statistics show decisively what are the main factors in selling books. Similarly, the number of books you have published will obviously be an element in how much cash you can hope to glean from sales.

For now, I’ll continue to experiment with various factors to see if any of them seem to affect sales. I’ll keep you posted… eventually.


Art, forgery, heist, Mike Faricy, Milan, novel, planning, Uncategorized

I am in the middle of writing a novel I started ten years ago. I started it, then left it to pursue other projects. Then I started it again, and drifted away to other books. Now I’m back. The book is about an art heist that takes place in Milan, Italy and it is fun writing it and I hope it will be fun reading it. A lot of the local color I gleaned from working over there for a bank. I have memories of fancy restaurants, ancient architecture and working my butt off 12-14 hours a day! So I have an almost magisterial amount of authority when it comes to the rigors of surviving Milan!

For the book, I had to do a lot of research into quite a number of different areas: art pricing, art forgery, art history, safecracking, weapons, state-of-the-art security and a whole host of other background detail.

This is not the sort of novel you can just begin and go with the flow, wondering where it will take you and so far it’s taken meticulous planning (just as, I expect, a real heist would!). When I looked at the synopsis, I found that it was around 7,000 words in length – mostly because I included a whole bunch of reminders on background detail for myself as I went along. However, I’ve tried to write it in such a way that it I’m not hide-bound by the planning but instead make it sound at least believable and compelling.

I was talking with my friend Mike Faricy recently. He too is a novelist and he has taken the opposite approach with his novels. He sits down and begins to write and is constantly pleasantly surprised by plot turns and character development, which, of course, makes it fun to write. His novels are also fun to read, so it’s obviously a perfectly valid way of approaching novel writing – in fact I’ve used that approach with other novels I’ve written.

So the question is: when do you do meticulous planning and when do you go with the flow?