35 Tips for Writing Powerful Prose Poems is the second in a series by writer Kaye Linden, the “35 Tips” series. She sent me the manuscript of the first book, 35 Tips for Writing a Brilliant Flash Story, to work on two years ago; it now sells well on Amazon.com. Veteran of many creative-writing courses and programs with an MFA in writing, editor for a literary magazine, a teller of tales from the Australian outback, Ms. Linden distills what she has learned about writing into instructional texts boiled down to their basics. These are presented without fluff but with prompts, examples, and exercises to help student writers gain skill and confidence.
I like her advice: “When in doubt, keep it simple.” Simple is good: A middle-schooler could use these books as easily as a college grad.
I checked—as I always do—and found no other books resembling the 35 Tips. No instructional texts about writing flash stories or writing prose poetry existed—an undiscovered gold mine! As a literary editor, Ms. Linden read many flash stories and prose poems which she said were “almost publishable” except it seemed their authors could use a little advice. This was further motivation to write the books—which were not as easy as they sounded.
Ms. Linden drafted the chapters and I arranged them in an order starting from square one, total novice, with lessons and challenges that keep the student growing toward success, whether or not he or she has a teacher or workshop. How do I know where square one is? I taught writing, particularly creative writing, for 31 years. You’re welcome. I know when a new writer’s questions arise and what they are: “How long should it be?” “Are prose poems stories?” “How do I know whether my poem is good?”
I also suggested exercises and prompts and asked for more examples in the book of good, clear, successful prose poems not necessarily by the author. Ms. Linden obtained permission from other authors to reprint in 35 Tips some of her favorite prose poems previously published in the journal she helps edit, The Bacopa Literary Review.
35 Tips for Writing Brilliant Flash Stories was first an Amazon.com e-book only, and the author received requests for hard copies. That was arranged, but the hard-copy product wasn’t optimal. It was too skinny and had a blank back cover. Ms. Linden hired the people at CreateSpace to design and upload the second book in the series for print and electronic media. Yes, it cost money. My services cost money too. The result is excellent--a beautiful, useful, evergreen book that fulfills a need.
If your book fulfills a need—it markets itself!
Xu Fangfang was 18 when Red Guards tore apart her family’s house, defacing artworks by her famous father, Xu Beihong, and destroying their classical record collection. Under Chairman Mao and especially the violent Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) all works of music, art, and drama, and their creators, teachers, and performers, had to meet strict ideological standards. A classically trained concert pianist, Xu Fangfang was among the many young artists Mao sent to farms to be “re-educated.”
Part biography and part autobiography, Xu Fangfang’s book Galloping Horses describes how Xu Beihong, one of the first Chinese artists to study in Europe, modernized Chinese painting and how his widow, son, and daughter, denounced as “bourgeois,” realized his hopes for them and preserved his contributions to art and art education. The Xu Beihong Memorial Museum in Beijing is the first government-funded museum in China devoted to the work of one artist. Xu Beihong is internationally known for his iconic ink-brush paintings of free-running horses. See his artwork here.
Galloping Horses is available in English in paperback and in Chinese as an e-book. Born and raised in Beijing, China, Xu Fangfang graduated in piano performance from Beijing’s Preparatory Music High School affiliated to the Central Conservatory of Music. She moved to the U.S. in 1981 and earned a B.A. in history from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. from Stanford University. She now lives in St. Louis. Her website is BeihongChinaArts.com.
BookEval: Now that the book is published, have you been surprised by anything? If so, what surprised you?
Xu Fangfang: During my book signings, I was surprised by the responses of some Americans with no Chinese background. They were passionate about Xu Beihong’s art, believing his talent should be recognized by all the world, not just in China.
BookEval: Galloping Horses took years to complete, requiring several trips to China for fact-checking and interviews. What motivated you?
Xu Fangfang: My book honored my mother’s wish for me to write about these things. She read what I wrote and gave me feedback. I am hoping the spirit of our family and the stories of other artists and music students under Mao will inspire readers to persist in attaining their own goals. My widowed mother, Liao Jingwen, worked for more than six decades to sustain the Xu Beihong Memorial Museum.
BookEval: How and why did you choose self-publishing?
Xu Fangfang: I was offered contracts by an academic and a non-academic publisher, but decided to self-publish because I wanted to control the credibility and accuracy of my stories. I needed to discourage potential attempts by some mainland Chinese people who might publish a Chinese translation without my permission. I wrote my own Chinese translation and simultaneously published the Chinese e-book and the English paperback.
BookEval: What was the hardest thing about writing or publishing this book?
Xu Fangfang: The hard thing was being objective about my emotions in order to tell the most accurate story while writing from the heart the trauma my family and I had lived through. I tried my best to document Xu Beihong’s experiences under Mao so historians and art historians can quote from my book.
Photograph of Xu Fangfang copyright Xu Fangfang
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.
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.