Writer's Muse Interview
Posted on 24 March 2006. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to Jim Palmer, editor of bi-monthly fiction magazine Writer's Muse
Tell us all about the Writer’s Muse history, ethos, etc
Writer’s Muse was originally conceived and managed by Calum Kerr and CK Publishing. It started life as The Literary Proposition about seven years ago and after a few issues changed its name then shortly afterwards became bi-monthly. I was involved with it in a peripheral manner from early on, being published in issue one. I used to teach Creative Writing and met Calum when he wrote to me promoting the magazine. I assisted CK Publishing in proofreading, editorial and promotional work for their other publishing interests and then began editing Writer’s Muse from issue 16, through to 22, where it ended – nothing to do with me, honest!
By issue 22 we had financial problems, partly caused by some bookstores (who shall remain nameless) taking us off their shelves for ‘corporate strategy’ reasons (we were a small press and large presses didn’t like rubbing shoulders with us!).
After about eighteen months I suggested resurrecting the Muse, came to a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Calum and, to use a technical publishing term, ‘took over the whole shebang’.
The ethos of Writer’s Muse has always been to promote the output of writers who otherwise would have few, if any, outlets for their work. As I said earlier I used to teach Creative Writing and know of the amount of good writers without a market or forum. Mainstream publications, generally, have a house style that is pretty rigid. They also have other criteria that have to be adhered to, strictly. That’s all fairly understandable – they are in business after all. My viewpoint, though (shared by other small presses), is that there should be outlets and publications to cater for as many writers, genres, styles etc. as possible.
All small presses probably have the same ethos as Writer’s Muse so, using the ‘scatter principle’, between us we cater for just about every kind of style, form, genre and taste; something that I’m rather pleased and proud about.
How do you find writers?
They tend to find us. In its time the Muse has published writers from America, Canada, France, Holland, Spain, Greece, Italy, Germany and Kazahkstan! Sometimes they’d tell us how they came across Writer’s Muse and that was worth writing about in itself. Six degrees of separation is a fascinating concept and easy to get your head round when you hear the stories of how people discovered the Muse.
The Internet has been a good shop window but I feel I should also mention Light’s List, which many people have quoted as being their first introduction to us. It’s kind of fitting that a hard copy publication points people in the right direction.
We have published many writers and I’m sure that they spread the word around as well, so it’s probably like the old image of ripples in a pond. People hear about us, submit to us and if they like what they see they spread the word again.
I also used to use my old position of Creative Writing tutor to advertise the small presses and it would have been churlish of me not to mention Writer’s Muse when singing the praises of the small press market!
What excites you about a piece of writing-
Many things. It could be the story, the style of writing, the structure; even seeing a piece that uses odd words – words that don’t “do the rounds” ordinarily. Sounds peculiar, I know. I think part of the interest and excitement is a form of exploration or discovery, and even a kind of arrogance!
Each time I start to read a piece I’m wondering along the lines of, “What’s round the next corner?” “How are you going to keep me interested?” The arrogance comes in trying to outguess the writer – see ahead and work out the twist, the outcome. Then excitement can come when the writer outsmarts you and pulls off something that you just didn’t expect.
Reading can be a relaxing pastime. Sometimes, though, it’s not a passive pursuit – you have to work at it to understand the work, to follow the plot, the story, the meanderings. It’s the sign of a good writer that they can make readers work harder. There becomes a form of symbiosis between the two. That’s rewarding for the reader in having read a satisfying piece by a gifted writer; but it’s also gratifying for the writer, knowing that someone out there will have “connected”.
An exercise I used to teach was ‘The Hook’. I’d bring in first lines of stories and novels and go through them with groups. A good hook will make an astute reader have to know more; a good hook will show volumes and promise the potential of more to come.
There are still many times when I open a new submission, read the first line or two, and know I’m in for a good time. Sometimes there’s almost poignancy in coming to the end of a piece and thinking, “I wish I’d written/thought of/done that!”
and what makes your heart sink?
Ohhh! Editing an earlier magazine I once had a piece submitted which I often think about. It began, “It was a dark and foggy night.”. I thought of ‘The Hook’ and my mind began second-guessing: this writer knew of making an impact; they were giving me the oldest cliché and were going to take me in another direction completely. There was, perhaps, irony, satire, deprecation of the art.
It all went downhill from there.
It is true that editors will look at the first few lines and be able to make a shrewd decision. I do, too, but I diligently carry on just in case I’m wrong-footed at the outset. I think writers are owed that.
On a personal level my heart sinks when I see writing that tries too hard to hook you but actually says nothing. I’ll read the first few lines of rip-roaring, firefighting, blood ‘n’ guts. Then the next paragraph has scones and tea and you realise that, probably, there’ll be many pages before anything else happens, if at all. It’s as though the writer has learned to capture your attention, and then doesn’t know what to do once they have it.
More heart-sinking comes from writing that goes into laborious detail that doesn’t move the piece forward, or conversations that don’t add more to the characters. I know I sound pedantic or finicky but some new writers write the way they think writers write. It’s obvious that they’re emulating a style but aren’t able to see that when descriptions and conversations take place in a good writer’s work, they take place for a reason, not to pad out the work and be writing!
A pet hate is sloppy, easily corrected, grammar and spelling: “should of”, “could of” etc. It’s the kind of thing that one minute consulting a dictionary would clarify and prevents the writer seeming like someone who was barred from being a Chav because they underachieved.
Before my heart gets lower than detritus from The Titanic, I think it’s fair to say that cliché and lazy writing slap the nadir.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
I know I should reel off a litany here: classical authors, popular culture idols, mainstream names. But.
There are too many, probably, to mention in one sitting but I think the following expands on what I said earlier about what excites and interests me. Structure, style, plotting etc. are nothing if there’s no idea. I always gravitate towards the ideas and imagination in pieces.
The man I would have difficulty faulting, if it came down to sheer imagination, is Philip K. Dick. His ideas stretched my mind in all directions. He is, to me, the ultimate practitioner in those words that every good writer should ask about everything: “What if…?”
Alan Garner, erroneously labelled a “children’s writer”, is a favourite. His ideas, again, extended my thinking and made me realise that you can go anywhere in your head – and take willing passengers with you. He researches methodically and will spend, literally, years plotting before creating a work.
Isaac Asimov was always a hero. He was highly prolific and his stories were always logical, in context with the genre, and simply enjoyable. He made difficult subjects easy to understand and still kept them enjoyable.
Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks depending on which genre he writes) is another choice. He can take a simple life, tale or premise and produce startling, convoluted, consequences and results. His work, Complicity, contains several chapters written in second person narrative – fairly rare. I also have a friend who changed his degree from science to the arts after reading a ‘Hook’ from a Banks’ novel (“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”). Follow that!
A possibly lesser-known choice is Charles Higson (Charlie Higson, co-writer of The Fast Show). He’s written only a handful of novels but they caught my imagination because of their disturbing content, sometimes tortuous plotting and dark humour.
I could go on: Ursula K. Le Guin, the subject of my degree dissertation, for instance. Of course I like some mainstream, established, writers. I like Dickens, Hardy, Steinbeck, Salinger, many ‘classical’ writers. Martin Amis produced Time’s Arrow and fell into my ‘favourite’ pile immediately. The list does go on!
Fortunately for your readers, perhaps I shouldn’t.
Comments by other Members