The Dogs of Humanity by Colin Dardis

I have something a bit different on this blog today for you, folks: an interview with local poet Colin Dardis about his new poetry collection, the Dogs of Humanity. Without any more preamble, let’s get into it!

Can you tell us a little about the themes of the collection? 

I’m not a massive fan of reducing a collection down to themes; for a poetry book, it’s almost an injustice, although it has to be done. I don’t read collections due to the themes mentioned; I read because I want to be subjected to strong, startling poetry. For example, I have no interest in beekeeping, but I absolutely adored Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal.

To be absolutely drawn on themes, the poems use dogs and other animals as a central motif to look at how people treat each other in an increasingly toxic world, touching on bullying, self-identity, chauvinism and mental health. But there’s also so much more. As Mary O’Donnell kindly said in her blurb, there is “an avoidance of zeitgeist poetry, what really sets the work apart tonally and in subject is its assumption of a counter-position at all times.” That counter-position could be the schism between the individual and society, between perceived norms and personal attitudes; but it’s equally a stance that allows any subject matter to be explored, as long as it is well written. That’s what poetry validates.

Why did you feel drawn to the themes? How did it all come together?

The poet, at the starting point, is drawn to every poem they write as they are compelled to write them. In some ways, your best poem is always your most recent poem, as that has been the one that allows the poetic muscle to continue flexing. Only with time and distance however does the poet realise which pieces will continue to speak to them, and for them. Therefore, almost all the poems in Dogs have been about for a while. Only the closing poem would have been written from scratch in the past year. Many predate poems that were in ‘the x of y’, my previous collection.

Fly on the Wall Press had a call out for chapbook submissions at the end of last year. I knew I had a number of poems mentioning dogs; a few years ago I had done a set at a reading exclusively of dog poems. The collection bloomed out of that, and Isabelle Kenyon at Fly on the Wall Press was immediately on board with the idea. She’s made the whole process very easy, and has been incredibly supportive and motivated in spreading the word about the book.  Continue reading

Soakings and Seizures: A Day in the Life

Oh, what a morning. Afternoon. Would some people call half-five evening? Probably.

Whatever. As far as me and my sleep disorder are concerned, it’s morning.

I woke up an hour ago in the middle of a thunderstorm. My dog stretched and toddled over to me, then keeled over in one of his seizures. I lifted and cradled him to my chest until it passed, tried calling my husband in the bed next to me.

Unresponsive. He’d, evidently, had a seizure too.

I watched him for a minute, figuring it would be a while before I could reach him. The rain was still hammering down.

I went downstairs, puppy still in hand, and got him settled in his downstairs bed with some food. Next was the super fun part. I had to go out in all of the rain to fetch the wheely bin, praying I’d find it in the alley.

Our last bin was stolen. The one before that was blown up by some kids with fireworks.

It has not been an easy month.

I went out, got soaked, but did retrieve the bin. A small win, but important.

Hands washed and feet wiped, I went back to check on Steve. He was vaguely aware of my presence. The seizure had passed and now he’s into the extreme fatigue of recovery. Another good thing.

It’s still ridiculously warm, despite all the rain. The heat makes it all worse: my health, Steve’s, and the dog’s.

On my way back downstairs again, I can see the cat has destroyed more wallpaper. Great. She’s set about stripping a whole section, no matter how many deterrents we try or alternatives we offer.

Steve and I are supposed to be getting ready to go to Slimming World but it’s clearly not going to happen. Another week missed. Another fee incurred. But maybe it’s for the best. We’re in between payments again and can’t really afford it right now.

I need to go out for milk but am already feeling the day weigh me down. I’ve felt ill for a month– no, wait. Backtrack. Clarify: I’ve felt ill all my life. This past month, maybe two, I’ve felt worse than usual.

This would have been another day for not leaving the house at all, but I must get that milk.

The funny part is, this is me taking a break. I’ve been ‘taking it easy’ for the past few days. Which means still dealing with all this, and housework – dishes, laundry, cooking – but not really writing or editing. I haven’t had the brainpower.

When people ask me how I am, I say I’m “getting there.” I don’t know what else to say. I love my work, when I can get to it, I love my husband and my pets. Our home is the loving, accepting atmosphere I’ve always craved. On the whole, I do not have a bad life.

A lot of the time, though, this life is made of days like these. I’m getting through them. This isn’t me complaining, really, about any of it. I do want people to understand, however.

I don’t live a conventional life and I’m fine with that, but sometimes I do want to open up a window and show people what it’s like.

This is it.

On Being Strong

There are many different definitions of strength. Most of them, I find, are inadequate. Strength isn’t the absence of fear or weakness, and it isn’t something purely physical.

I’m partially thinking about this because I’ve been rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer season seven, these past few nights, but also because strength is something I’m constantly striving for. I have to remember that being strong is also not the same thing as being hard on yourself. I mean, sometimes it is, but not all the time.

I’ve done a lot of hard things in my life so far – fought through a fair few difficult situations – and where I am now, I have more hard things in front of me.

I am fighting against my body and the medical condition I have to get pregnant.

I am trying hard to lose weight – something that even people without PCOS struggle to do.

I’m also trying to secure a publishing deal.

These are big things. A lot of people much better than me have spent big chunks of their lives tackling one or other of these. The fact that I’m struggling with them is not a sign of weakness. Or, maybe it is, but that weakness isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Sometimes, I gotta cut myself some slack.

I cannot be top of my game, doing my very best, all of the time.

Being strong is not an absence of weakness, it’s accepting the things holding you back – the things failing and falling apart – and going on, regardless.

I am both weak and strong. That’s okay. The same is true of all people, even slayers. I just need to remember that.

What To Do When Offered A Publishing Contract

Some people might rightly assume there are only two things you should do when you finally get that precious publishing deal: sign on the dotted line and open the bubbly.

I understand this impulse, but I have five other steps you should also maybe consider.

  1. Read the fine print
  2. Have the Society of Authors read the fine print. This is a free service they offer to members. Because of their expertise, they will be able to see any potential red flags better than you.
  3. Contact the other places you’ve had your manuscript on submission to let them know about the offer. This is courtesy but, aside from making you a good person, it might also net you a second (or third) offer.
  4. If the contract you have been given is by a publisher directly, ask an agent to come in and broker the deal. Even if you’ve previously submitted to agents with no luck, they will likely reconsider given this new circumstance and can probably get you a better deal.
  5. Consider your options. While you don’t want to leave your interested party waiting indefinitely, lest said offer expire, you do want to to give the people contacted at stages three and four of this process long enough to get back to you. Also consider, in the case where you’re given multiple offers, that the largest cash advance might not be the best deal for you/your book. Ask your publisher/agent what vision they have for marketing it and what level of edits they expect.

On Researching Contemporary Fiction

I don’t think it’s particularly big-headed to say I have a somewhat decent set of writing skills at this point – it is my job, after all – but world-building is definitely not something that comes to me naturally. This didn’t matter, I told myself, because I mainly write stories set in the real world in the modern-day.

Well, as you can probably guess, I was wrong.

I may have been basing my descriptions on places and things that already exist, but I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of stuff even I know fairly well. Like, I can picture a road I’ve walked down dozens of times, but I won’t necessarily know the name of that road because it hasn’t ever been relevant to me before. And the thing about characters is that, if done right, they take on a life of their own, which means things will be relevant to them that have nothing to do with you as a writer.

If you don’t want your reader to stumble over something out of place, sooner or later, you’ll have to look things up. Even if the real world is your source material, the reader probably won’t know which part of it you’re drawing direct inspiration from, so you’ve got to rebuild that world inside their head – not as big a deal as creating an imaginary empire from scratch, but still no mean feat.

In preparation for National Novel Writing Month last year, there were a series of Instagram inspiration prompts and one of them was ‘Last Writing Related Search.’ Displayed in the photo, below, is what was in my Google search history.

Yes, it was all research for my book, odd as it may sound.

Since then, I’ve actually gone even further, to figure out what subjects my main characters would have studied at G.C.S.E., what dates the exams would have been on, and plotted this info on a calendar next to the plot points of the book.

No one else is ever going to need this information, and it doesn’t end up in the book directly, but it certainly helped me get my head around timelines and pacing, which ultimately makes the book better. Continue reading

What Literary Agents Do For Authors

This post comes directly from my notes of the recent publishing conference I attended in Dublin. For more general info and advice from that event and another one I attended in Belfast, please click here

If you’re new to the world of writing and have heard people talk about trying to get an agent, you might well be wondering what these mystical creatures are and what they do. Well, wonder no longer, because I’m about to spell it out. And – spoiler! – it’s more than just taking a cut of authors’ earnings.

Agents are…

1 – Advocates

On the most basic level, an agent is a third party who can enhance (or engineer) an interaction between two other parties. In the literary world, they are the middle man (usually a woman, in fact) who brokers a deal between writers and publishers.

Can’t writers submit to publishers directly, though? Some of them, yes, but the ‘big five’ publishers (and their imprints, who make up most of the market) usually only take submissions sent via agencies.

2 – Buffers

Imagine the scene: you’ve managed to get a publishing deal all on your own, but something has gone wrong. Perhaps the publisher has chosen the most hideous cover. You’re upset and you have no idea how to communicate this to your publisher. You worry they won’t take your criticism well, or that they’ll change their mind, so you’re left with the choice of accepting a cover you hate or risk rocking the boat by being seen as difficult.

Well, with an agent, you don’t need to worry. They will have this conversation for you.

3 – Knowledgeable

These points are in no particular order but if I was to rank them, this would probably be first.

Publishing deals are complicated beasts involving the sale of rights in a number of regions and formats: paperback, ebook, and audio as well as film, TV, and stage. Got an agent? You don’t need to stress over the fine print of any of it! They know all about shifts in the market and changes to the going rate. Nine times out of ten, they will get you a better deal than you could on your own. Continue reading

Six-Month Stats Round Up

It’s a new week at the start of a fresh month. We’re now entering the second half of 2019 and, personally, I’m excited. But before I jump headlong into the next round of CampNaNoWriMo, it’s time to look back. I said I’d be more open with my stats, going forward, so here we go:

Books Read

  • 31 out of my goal of 60 for the year = 52%
  • So, just ahead of target. That’s a win.

Words Written
(Rounded to the nearest thousand)

  • January: 4,000
  • February: 6,000
  • March: 6,000
  • April: 37,000
  • May: 12,000
  • June: 13,000
  • Total = 78,000

Continue reading

On Taking Opportunities

It is my firm belief that success rarely happens on its own. There’s a huge amount of random chance involved in winning the lottery, but there’s always another key ingredient, too: buying a ticket.

Award-winning author Kit de Waal wrote a piece for the Bridport Prize website urging people to enter competitions. Lots of them, in various different shapes and sizes; paid and unpaid.

I found this advice as I was reading through this year’s website, preparing to put my work forward for a few of this year’s prizes (the Bridport actually being made up of a few different competitions: one for poetry, one for short stories etc).

Kit de Waal offered up five bursaries to people wanting to enter the flash fiction competition. I was eligible, I entered, and I won one of those five chances to enter the flashfic competition for free.

On top of this, I paid to enter the poetry competition and the short story comp.

Fingers crossed something comes of it. I’d love to be able to end this post with a big success story to perfectly illustrate my point, but I don’t think the pay off is the point at this stage. Success will come in time, I’m sure. If not with this competition then somewhere else.

I also think successes tend to build on themselves.

Once you’ve won an award for a short story (for example), you won’t necessarily find it easier to hook a literary agent for your novel, but it might help and, in the meantime, other doors may open.

All that’s in the future, though. The main takeaway message for right here, right now, is to try. And to keep trying. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Publishing Conferences: Part Two – Belfast

The second self-styled publishing conference I attended in recent weeks was in Belfast, organised by Writers & Artists/Bloomsbury Publishers and the Open University.

This one was different in a number of ways to the Dublin event. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. There were fewer people involved, for one thing; fewer attendees and fewer speakers (the event made up more of talks rather than panels), but still just as rich in terms of content.

The focus, I found, was actually less about publishing and more about writing. Paul McVeigh (author and playwright) gave a fantastic talk on ‘how to build a narrative’ by crafting the very best sentences, using foreshadowing and backstory; Garrett Carr (lecturer of Creative Writing at Queens) spoke on how to research a book (something I’m going to come back to and talk about in a separate post), and Geraldine Quigley (author of ‘Music Drugs Love War‘) gave us insight into how she creates her main character(s).

Lots of practical advice from all of them but, as I said, mostly focusing on writing rather than publishing. That came a little later, in the form of a joint talk by literary agent Laura Williams and editor Patsy Horton.

A while ago on this blog, I said that writing and publishing were practically two different animals, and I stand by that, but at the very heart of publishing is good writing. Therefore, I do not mean it as a criticism when I say the focus of the conference was here rather than on submission tips. You could follow all guidelines to a tee, but if your story isn’t up to scratch, you’re not going to get very far.

And speaking of submissions: one note I made to myself during the event is that, although they’re often called ‘guidelines’ they should be read and followed as rules. Agents and publishers get so many manuscripts they can barely read them all. Don’t screw yourself over by making yours an easy pass.

A Tale of Two Publishing Conferences: Part One – Dublin

In recent weeks, I have attended two publishing conferences: one in Dublin, and one in Belfast. Below, I’d like to compare and contrast what happened at each.

I’ve already touched on one particular take away I had from the Dublin conference in my previous post, so you might want to read that here first, but – putting that aside – the first event was part of International Literature Festival Dublin in association with Writing.ie. There was a ‘Date With An Agent’ element to the day for selected people, but I’m not going to cover that because I wasn’t one of the chosen few.

The day itself was split up into four main slots (not accounting the aforementioned DWAA) topped and tailed by comfort breaks and question & answer sessions. There was a panel with agents, one with editors, one with traditionally published authors, and a slightly more general talk by literary scout Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin (who runs Writing.ie and Inkwell Group).

Vanessa was the event coordinator throughout the whole day. Her talk covered lots of practical tips about the submission process, particularly writing pitches, covering letters, and synopsises.

It was really interesting to hear the perspectives of agents, editors, and authors to see where they agreed and where they didn’t, but I think what was most interesting was not that the different groups had differing opinions with the others (agents with editors, or editors with authors), but that there were differing opinions within the groups, particularly the agents. This really underlined how things can be entirely different for everyone. There’s no one-size-fits-all path to publication. Continue reading