January always feels like an odd month to me. It seems to take ages to get going, and then before you know it, it’s almost over. Cue a frantic rush to get up to date on all the things I should have been doing at the start of the month. Oops.
That aside, January is always a month of beginnings. It’s a month of testing myself, to see how closely I can stick to my newly made resolutions. So far, it’s been a bit of a mix.
I haven’t got particularly far with my 100 rejections – although I did send some poems out the other day, so maybe there’ll be some on their way shortly.
I’ve read 4 books, so I guess I’m kind on track to my 50 by the end of the year.
So far, I’m keeping up with my weekly blog posts, so that’s a big tick on the resolutions list.
As for the novella, I’m now officially over half way through the first draft of this, so this one is looking fairly promising.
But how has it gone apart from that?
Mostly, I’ve been trying to get back into some sort of routine. Before Christmas, I had about 3 weeks of being in this fantastic routine that was probably one of the most productive of my life: get up before 7am, write all morning, sometimes go for a walk / run, do admin in the afternoon, relax / read / make Christmas decorations in the evenings. Then Christmas happened and that sort of went by the wayside. Now, I’m getting into a kind of routine, which isn’t really the one I want. It seems to be: get up late, mooch around trying to write, fail, read a book to pass the time, finally manage to write something that’s halfway decent by about dinner time, do some frantic admin, clamber into bed at around 1am.
Luckily, I’ve spent the past week with Stephen, working on the rewrites of our musical – and there’s nothing like another person to make you get your act together and get working, so it’s been a productive week. Keeping my fingers crossed that that productivity follows me into February.
In other news:
I had a great weekend in London with the lovely Elizabeth Mann, at the T S Eliot readings (and spending far too much time & money in the city’s various bookshops). It was such an inspiring occasion – and a huge congratulations to Jacob Polley on his win!
January’s Word Mess open mic night was one of the busiest we’ve had, with a fantastic variety of readers. (The next one will be on Tuesday 28th February.)
I started 2 new blog series: a monthly writing prompt, starting with a prompt about beginnings; and Face to Face, series of short conversations I’ll be having every month, talking to interesting people about the things that interest them. So far, so good! 🙂
I’ve started my schools workshops again. One of my personal favourites was looking at riddles & kennings with my Yr 4s at St Patrick’s Primary in Workington. Their special topic is currently the arctic, so we wrote some arctic-themed riddles. Any guesses…?
I am a ship-sinker.
I am a crack-maker.
I am a wave-breaker.
What am I?
I am a birth-giver.
I am a snow-hunter.
I am a seal-eater.
I am a den-sleeper.
What am I?
I am a cookie-eater.
I am a toy-maker.
I am a milk-drinker.
I am a sleigh-driver.
I am a chimney-climber.
I am an elf-checker.
I am a beard-grower.
What am I?
Looking forward to going back there this month to work more on description & close observation.
THE MONTH IN BOOKS:
All We Shall Know, by Donal Ryan
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Anthology of the Sea (Emma Press)
Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig
Currently reading: The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton, and Human Acts, by Han Kang
THE MONTH IN PICTURES:
London: lots & lots of bookshops
London: British Museum
Stephen busy composing
T S Eliot Award readings
WordMess open mic night – all welcome!
Sheep in Cumbria
Going for a productive walk in the Eden Valley
The Handmaid’s Tale: a long overdue read
Ghost signs in Manchester
Globe Theatre: trip to London to the T S Eliot Award reading
View from the writing desk in Manchester: not a bad place to write a musical
Reading at WordMess open mic night (thanks to Rob Fraser for the photo)
Over the past decade or so, there seems to have been a growing trend for writing in coffee shops. Whether this has been popularised by J K Rowling’s accounts of writing the first couple of Harry Potter books in The Elephant House in Edinburgh, or just a knock-on effect of the growing coffee shop culture, I’m not sure.
I like it though, this gradual graduation of the writing process into the public space. No more the weary novelist, cramped alone in his tiny attic room, shut away from the world as he squeezes words from his brain with only a few spiders for company. No more the lonely poet, tramping verse across the mountaintops, singing them mournfully back to the wind. (Well, maybe still here and there in Cumbria…)
Writing in coffee shops brings writing out into the open. For me, it stops is being some secretive, mystery thing that unusual-looking people do in the privacy of their own homes, and turns it into something public. Oh, you see that woman over there with the flat white and a Mac? She’s an author. That man with the doodled notebook? He’s writing poems.
I think (or maybe I hope) that when people see writers writing like this, it reaffirms the fact that writing is real work. I think that sometimes, non-writers underestimate just how hard writing can be. After all, we just sit at a table and make stuff up, right? What’s so hard about that? It probably doesn’t even take very long. Writers probably spend most of their time sleeping or practising their autographs…right?
If you’re a writer, this attitude is probably pretty familiar. If you’ve shared a house with someone who isn’t themselves a writer / artist, you’ve probably had to fight tooth and nail to protect your writing time, and stop it morphing into washing up time, or putting-the-bins-out time. You’ve possibly also had to put up with comments like, ‘Are you busy? Or are you just writing?’ I actually had a friend who asked me: ‘Are you working or writing today?’ I think my response was, ‘Umm, both…?’
At least when it’s out in the open people can see you’re working. Well, sort of. I mean, I’m not saying that people can see you at the coal face, because for writers most of the work does and always will take place inside our heads – but at least people can see you’re putting in the hours.
Writing in coffee shops is also a good way for me to shake my ideas up a bit. There’s nothing like a change of setting to help with a change of mind, or a bit of people watching to bring in some added inspiration. If I’m stuck on what to write, I tend to do one of two things: read a book, or migrate to a cafe. Sometimes I do both.
Not that I never write at home. I do. I write at my kitchen table, at my desk, on my sofa, in bed… Sometimes while I’m cooking I’ll write standing up at the kitchen counter. But sometimes at home I can feel too conspicuous. Which is a weird thought, since I live on my own – who is there to be conspicuous to? But at home, everything clamours for my attention, because everything is my responsibility. There are a million other jobs that need doing, from hoovering to re-stacking the log basket to dusting the tops of the kitchen cupboards.
Whenever I’m even remotely considering dusting the tops of the kitchen cupboards, I know I must be procrastinating, and it’s definitely time for a change of scene.
For me, writing in a coffee shop can help me feel like a ‘real’ writer. Going to a specific place, like going to an office, can help remind me that, like any job, I have to put the hours in. It can spur me on mentally and give me a fresh creative canvas. When I want to get some serious writing done, they can give me a break from the thousand other things that try to hold me back.
Also, I just quite like coffee.
These are my 5 favourite coffee shops for writing in in Cumbria:
1: Abbey Coffee Shop, Shap
The Abbey Coffee Shop in Shap is my local. If I’m stuck and it’s a nice day, it’s just a 15 minute walk across the fields. Perfect for instilling that freshness of thinking.
There’s no wifi at the Abbey Coffee Shop – it’s a ‘talk to people rather than phones’ kind of place, with a really friendly, local feel. I don’t think I’ve ever been in there without seeing someone I know – something that can be great for the lonely writer. (Stuck on my own in that attic with the spiders? No thanks…) The only issue with this (for writing, at least) is that it can get crazily busy around the middle of the day, which means that taking up a table by yourself with nothing but a latte and a notebook for 2 hours isn’t really acceptable. But get there early when they open, and it’s great – not to mention the fact that the freshly baked scones will still be warm.
It’s also run by locals, so it’s supporting local business: my friend Rowan, who I went to primary school with, and her dad, who makes the world’s best lamb & apricot casserole. No exaggeration.
2: Brew Brothers, Kendal
I once saw Brew Brothers described as ‘an urban cafe in a rural setting’, which is a description I took issue with, as I don’t see Brew Brothers as an ‘urban’ cafe at all. For one thing, it has a giant blown up photo of a sheep covering one whole wall. I think the person who wrote that description was confusing urban with hipster, because Brew Brothers is a very hipster place. Eclectic chairs, an old piano stool, pretty mismatched china, water served in jam jars… Basically it’s my favourite kind of style in a nutshell.
Like the Abbey Coffee Shop, it can get super busy during the middle of the day, but that’s because the meals and cakes are both delicious. Plus it’s about the only cafe I know which offers a big choice of different flavours of chai latte.
3: Cakes & Ale, Carlisle
Cakes & Ale is attached to Bookends, the independent book shop in Carlisle, which itself is attached to Bookcase: the biggest and best warren of a second-hand book shop I think I’ve ever been in. Mum & I once wandered apart in here, and she had to phone me to see where I was, because apparently she’d been calling my name and I hadn’t heard. Turns out we were still on the same floor, which shows how big the bookshop is.
The books seem to spill over into the cafe, too. If I’m stuck on what to write, there’ll always be something interesting to read in Cakes & Ale. Or I can just listen to whatever’s on the turntable of the record player, or order another yummy cake. (Cake seems to be a developing theme in these cafes. Just so you know, that isn’t a coincidence.)
4: The Yard Kitchen, Penrith
If you’re looking for an inspirational place and you can’t find a cafe attached to a bookshop, find one attached to a salvage yard. The Yard Kitchen oozes vintage salvage style, from the wood-burner in the back room, to the neon sign that slightly older Penrith folk will recognise from one of the now-closed nightclubs. There’s also an upstairs snug, which is a great space for writing when you want to get away from it all a bit. In the summer, there’s also an outside seating area, with views across town to the beacon.
Oh, and in case you haven’t guessed already, the cakes are amazing. Especially the scones.
5: The Wild Strawberry, Keswick
Of these coffee shops, the Wild Strawberry is the one I go to least. No reflection on the cafe itself, but just because I don’t often find myself in Keswick with a couple of hours looking for somewhere to do some work. But when I do, this is generally the place I gravitate towards. (Though I avoid going at all during school holidays, especially in August, when Keswick turns into a great big tourist trap.)
Downstairs, The Wild Strawberry is pretty bustling, but I like to secrete myself away somewhere upstairs, where there’s less pressure on you to leave as soon as your coffee cup is empty. Also, they have good cakes (of course) and nice milkshakes.
Oh, and if you have any other great cafe recommendations, do let me know – I’d love to expand my repertoire!
Ever notice how most of our interaction is now via phone, or messenger, or email, or skype? At least, it sometimes seems that way for me.
Face to Face is a new series of short conversations I’ll be having every month, talking to interesting people about the things that interest them. We’ll be chatting over cups of tea & pieces of cake, in my kitchen or wherever there’s a chance to stop and swap thoughts.
Phones down. Screens closed. Talking face to face.
S1 E1: In this first episode, I chat to Supal Desai about blogging and the creative process of writing a blog post.
Supal is the founder of a business risk consultancy based in London and the blogger behind the travel lifestyle blog, chevrons & éclairs. Her ideal Sunday would find her starting the morning in bed with a good book, newspaper or a cuddle, and then making brunch alongside music and endless cups of coffee. Her love for culture, art and history has taken her to the most exotic parts of the world, where she uses that opportunity to curate content that tells a story through fashion and food editorials.
So where do I come in?
I first met Supal in my friend’s kitchen, during our Masters year at St Andrews. She was cooking up something delicious-looking, and I was trying to convince her that haggis were little creatures that lived in the mountains.
When I was running Rabbit Rabbit (rabbit) young writers’ group, I used to send the young writers a writing prompt every week. I missed doing it, so I’m going to share a writing prompt as part of my weekly (weekend-ly) blog posts. I’m not Jo Bell, and this isn’t 52, so I’m going to share one a month rather than one a week: the first Sunday of every month.
And because this is January and it’s the first one, I thought I’d share a prompt about beginnings.
If you think about famous novels, there are probably at least a few whose opening lines come to mind. Which makes sense – the beginning of a book is the part that’s supposed to grab us and make us want to read further.
For me, a good opening to a book is one that draws me in. It’s one that raises questions, or suggests a struggle that needs to be resolved. Sometimes it puts us right in the middle of the drama, straight away.
Take these examples – which, because we’re still within the festive season, I’ve done as a quiz (answers at the bottom of the post):
‘It was a cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’
‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.’
‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’
‘People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.’
‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.’
‘When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.’
‘It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.’
‘He was afraid to go to sleep. For three weeks, he had been afraid of going to sleep.’
‘The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.’
‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’
‘The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.’
‘They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved.’
‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’
‘Like most people I lived a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.’
How many did you get? Answers at the bottom of the post…
Writing a gripping first sentence is all very well for the opening of a novel, which sets up plot and conflict and character and story. But what about poetry?
I wonder how many of us think about setting up conflict and character and story in the opening of a poem? I wonder how many of us write opening lines to grip people with the drama of the poem, the way we might in a novel?
So that’s my prompt:
Write an opening line for a poem, which sets up drama and / or mystery, and whose sole purpose is to grip the reader.
Then, and only then, you can try writing the rest of the poem.
Here are a few poems that I think grip the reader really well: