January is always a strange month. Named for Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, gates and doorways: a god with two heads, for looking forwards and looking back. It always feels to me like an in-between month, still emerging from the hibernation of Christmas, not quite in the full swing of the year.
This year, January has felt particularly transient, as I’ve spent a good portion of it self-isolating with Covid. In some ways, this isn’t too different to how I usually spend my January – I rarely have much work at the start of the year, and the weather tends to keep me coccooned on the sofa for most of the month, making it the ideal month to catch up on admin tasks and the ever-higher totter of the to-be-read pile. But Covid is a srange beast, and even on the days I haven’t felt particularly ill with it, it’s left me wiped out, unable to complete more than one or two simple tasks per day.
Luckily (or perhaps unluckily), I’ve been here before. Back in March 2020, after my first close encounter with Covid, I built myself a recovery plan: I split each day into three parts (morning, afternoon, evening), and aimed to accomplish one task in one of those parts, with the other two set aside for relaxing. Gradually, I progressed to two tasks over two parts of the day, and then moved from there back to something more like a normal schedule – although it took a good few months to achieve this.
What that means is that this time around, I know what I’m doing – which is to not overdo it, and to take it slowly. And to hope things get better before too long.
So, other than baking and crocheting and falling asleep on the sofa, what have I been up to this month?
A Few Good Things:
Despite the Covid situation, there have been some definite positives to this month. For starters, I won the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Gulliver Travel Grant! The grant is awarded annually, to assist writers of speculative literature in their research. I’ve been applying for the past few years, so it’s lovely to finally be successful! The grant will fund a trip to Cambridge, to the Scott Polar Research Institute, and the Polar Museum.
I also had a short story longlisted for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize! The story, ‘The Architect‘, was selected as one of 10 to make the longlist, out of almost 1400 entered for the prize. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the announcement of the shortlist next month – but in the meantime, you can read the story here.
And speaking of short stories – another one was accepted by Under the Radar this month – the excellent journal run by Nine Arches Press. The story, ‘In the Soft Grey Tide of the War’, will appear in issue 28, which should already be winging its way out to subscribers’ letterboxes, and which is available from the Nine Arches website.
And last but not least, I also had a poem longlisted for the Bedford Poetry Competition. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the shortlist, but recognition is always something to be proud of, so thank you to the judges!
The Month in Books:
I haven’t read as much as I’d have liked to this month. Blame it on the Covid, which has sapped my concentration like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. That said, I have read some really great books over the past few weeks, and I’m excited to keep working through my TBR pile in the weeks to come.
Every year, I write a blog post about how I’ve managed to make a living as a writer that year. Following on from 2020’s support grant-heavy income, this year has been a bit more of a mix: the support grants came to an end, and many of us are still trying to figure out what work looks like in this new half-open world.
At the end of 2020, I had a strategy: focus on my existing work channels to buy myself time to write. In practice, this meant not applying for opportunities (such as commissions or project work) which took days of application-writing. It meant waiting – largely – for work to come to me.
I said this last year, and I’ll say it again here: I’m lucky. I’ve been working freelance as a writer and facilitator for almost a decade, eight years of that in the same county. So I’ve built up enough contacts and relationships with other artists and organisations, which means that work does, now, just drop into my inbox from time to time. Even this year, when everything’s been a bit topsy-turvy, I’ve had work just arrive. So much, in fact, that I’ve even had to turn some of it down.
Wait, what? I’ve turned down work? Paid work?
Yep, that’s right. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be in this position, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. Even to me now, writing this in the annual financial slump otherwise known as January, it sounds almost unbelievable. But I still think it was the right thing to do – partly because I was so busy, and therefore had to prioritise existing commitments, but also because, this year, I’ve been lucky enough to receive two grants (a Northern Writers’ Award and a Society of Authors Authors Foundation Grant), which buy me time to work on specific projects.
But more about this later on. For now:
What has 2021 looked like for me?
As you can see from the graph, income has been very up and down this year. This isn’t much of a surprise – it generally is.
I had a few decent-sized pieces of online work in the first few months, boosted by the 4th installment of the SEISS Covid grant in April. In May and June, the income took a big dip. Normally, this would be because this is exam time, and so I’m not going into any schools to run workshops – but of course, that hasn’t been happening for the past couple of years anyway.
What I have noticed over the past couple of years, is that when we’ve been in deepest darkest lockdown, there’s been a slow but relatively steady stream of work. It’s when we’re coming out of lockdown, and when there’s uncertainty, that the work all but disappears. It’s still very thin on the ground now, 6 months after the final SEISS grant installment.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – you’ll have till next year’s blog post if you want to hear about this year’s problems.
So. May and June were a bit of a wash-out, but then July and August were successful (thanks partly to SEISS Grant 5 in August), as were October and November. In September, I was Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library, and so the stipend from this was my only income for that month. December is almost always a wash-out.
What does all this mean? Well, it means that I need to think ahead when I’m thinking about my finances. I can’t live month to month, because the next month might be a no-income month, and then I’d be stuffed. It means I can’t always rely on more work coming into the inbox – and it’s this which makes that decision to turn work down so scary.
So where has my income come from this year?
Last year, I listed four categories:
Funding: money from grants.
Facilitation: both workshop facilitation and facilitation of creative projects. (These go into one category, because project money will often include funding for both the delivery and administration side, lumped together.)
Writing: commissions, royalties, ALCS money, PLR money, prize money – anything that comes from the actual writing of the actual words
Events: panel events, chairing and readings (in person and online and even over the phone).
This year I’ve also reinstated a fifth category: residencies. (This was missing last year, because most residencies were closed for so much of 2020.)
As a reminder, here’s where my income came from in 2020:
As we can see, most of it came from grant-funding – unsurprising, given that we were in the thick of the pandemic, and pretty much all other income dropped away for the bulk of the year.
A small amount came from writing. Plus some from facilitation – mostly from a single project, which involved a combination of administration and remote workshop leading.
Let’s compare that to this year:
In 2021, the biggest block is still funding, but it’s a significantly smaller proportion – 44% rather than 72%. This is partly because the Covid support has now stopped, and partly because of the return of (some) other work. Most of the funding support I did receive came from the Northern Writers’ Awards, and from the Society of Authors, who gave me an Authors’ Foundation grant to work on my novel, to stand in place of the income that still hasn’t returned following the pandemic.
Facilitation is another significant chunk (28%) – largely because I started leading online workshops in 2021, which has gone some way towards returning the balance.
I also earned a significant chunk from writing last year – unusual in a year where I didn’t sell a manuscript, and so didn’t get an advance. (You can read more about how books earn money here.) The bulk of this came from just one source: winning the Palette Poetry Prize. This is why big prizes like this are so competitive – alongside being a massive confidence boost, they can also make such a huge difference to a writer’s income, and buy you a good couple of months of writing time if you’re lucky enough to win.
While I did do a couple of residencies and online events in 2021, these are still predictably low, thanks partly to Covid, and partly to my own circumstances, as it’s now two years since the novel came out. I’m keeping things crossed these aspects of my income have a chance to buck up a bit more in 2022!
So what’s next for 2022?
We’re already a good few weeks into 2022, and I’m starting to try to get a sense for how it’s all going to shape up. At this point, it’s always difficult to tell – even in a year where we’re not battling a global pandemic.
I’ll be honest, mostly, things look pretty lousy. A lot of organisations seem (understandably) unwilling to plan things at the moment. In-person-only events remain inaccessible to so many people, hybrid events require extra planning (all of which could be undone at any time by new restrictions), and there seems to be a reluctance by a lot of people to plan online-only events – led, I think, by the belief that people are fed up with them. (Personally, I don’t get this. I love not having to travel for events, and getting to sit on the sofa with the cat and a bowl of ice cream while I’m watching them. But that’s another story.)
In terms of income, this means 2022 looks pretty thin on the ground.
But all is not lost! I have a couple of sizeable things in the pipeline, which I’m keeping my fingers crossed for – but which I’m not mentioning as I’m trying not to jinx. And as always, you never know what might land in the inbox…
NB: That doesn’t mean I was submitting work before I was happy with it, or that I was editing my work any less rigorously. Only that I wasn’t letting myself be put off making the submission in the first place.
I did the same thing in 2019, and then again in 2020 – partly to keep track of my own progress, but also because it’s so easy to only talk about the good stuff. And because when you only see other people talking about the good stuff, it can be easy to get disheartened about your own writing.
So the blog post that follows is a mix. There is some good stuff (I’m lucky – it’s been a pretty good year for me in lots of ways), but there have also been a lot of rejections to trudge through. Personally, I always find these things easier when they’re made visual – so here are my rejections (and acceptances, and in-betweens) for 2021, broken down into a series of graphs:
Over the course of 2021, I submitted to 128 opportunities – more than double my submissions for 2020. Not only that, but this is the biggest number of submissions I’ve ever managed in a single year – which is perhaps surprising, given that one of my resolutions for 2021 was to apply for fewer commissions and for less project work.
So why such a hike in submission numbers? Well, looking at the breakdown of what I submitted might be an answer to that. Because of course, not all submissions are created equal.
In 2021, I submitted / applied to:
3 funding opportunities
53 submissions (e.g. to magazines / journals / anthologies)
Or, because you all know I’m a big fan of the graph to make things visual:
As you can see, job applications are particularly low – only 2% of my year’s applications. So this, at least, is in keeping with my 2021 new year’s resolution, to not apply for much in the way of project work and commissions. These applications, I reasoned, are usually the ones that take the most time – not to mention often having to design and tailor a very specific project, which is work that’s often wasted if the application is unsuccessful.
Funding is similarly low – though this was more to do with there being fewer funding opportunities I was eligible to apply for in the first place. The three I applied for this year were the Arts Council DYCP grant (unsuccessful), the Society of Authors Authors’ Foundation grant (successful!), and the Speculative Literature Fund Gulliver Travel Grant, for which I’m still on the shortlist and waiting to hear (so fingers crossed).
My residency applications are higher this year than they were in 2020, as more residencies have started to open up for applications again after being closed down for much of last year – though I’ve still been limiting my applications to residency opportunities within the UK, or with long lead-in dates which make me feel a bit more hopeful about the possibility of actually travelling to get to them.
As you can see from the graph, the bulk of my applications this year were competitions, and submissions (within which I include submissions to journals, magazines, anthologies etc).
I’ve always submitted to a lot of competitions. They can be expensive, but they’re also possible to submit to even if you only have a single available poem (unlike magazines, who often like you to submit a group of three or more at a time). The odds aren’t always good, but if you do get lucky, they can also have a pretty pay-off!
The big rise in submissions this year comes from a shift in my submitting habits. As well as poems, I’ve also started sending out short stories more frequently, as I look for a home for some of the stories from my collection. Not only that, but, while I’m still submitting to all the sorts of places I used to submit before, I’ve also started submitting to US journals, the majority of which allow simultaneous submissions – meaning, you can submit the same poem or story to more than one place at once, so you’re not waiting on an answer for 6 months before you can try somewhere else. As you can imagine, this hugely increases the scope for submissions.
Which is all very well and good, but how successful was I?
In the graph above, I’ve only included things that I’ve received a definite response for. I’m still waiting on a decision from 41 of my submissions and applications from 2021.
Out of the 87 submissions that have been answered,
9 were an outright sucess (e.g. a competition win, or a publication, or a funding grant)
63 were an outright no
10 were a no, but with some sort of longlisting – a kind of close but no cigar
5 were a partial success – a kind of close and yes some sort of cigar, but not the Cubans
Personally, I’m pretty happy with that. That no number might look pretty big, but if you add together the yes, longlist and partial sections, to get submissions which received some kind of positive response, you come out with 28% – or just over a quarter. As far as I’m concerned, a 1 in 4 success rate (or even partial success rate) isn’t bad at all.
What were my 9 outright successes?
The Desperate Literature Prize: I was shortlisted for this with a short story, but I’m counting it as a full success rather than a partial, because I also won the Georgia Writers’ House Prize within it, which will result (when Covid allows) in a week’s residency in Tbilisi.
Northern Writers Awards: Debut Poet Award: I’ve been applying for the Northern Writers’ Awards for years, so it was such a thrill to be successful this year! The Award is a package of funding, mentoring and support, and has already proved invaluable.
Society of Authors: Authors’ Foundation: funding for work in progress.
Palette Poetry Prize: You know I said I’d started submitting more to US journals and prizes? The Palette Poetry Prize is a big US competition, judged this year by Jericho Brown. You can read my winning poem here.
Joyland: Another US journal, with international reach. This one for short fiction, to be published in 2022.
Broken Sleep: Footprints: an anthology of new ecopoetry: due in 2022, and featuring one of my poems.
The Arctic Circle Residency: I said I wasn’t applying for international residencies unless they were a way away in the future, and this one isn’t till April 2023 – but still, I’m incredibly excited about it! More about this residency and everything it involves in a future blog post…
[plus a secret one, which I’m not allowed to announce just yet!]
So what are my submission and application plans for 2022?
For the most part, I’m planning to operate the same strategy as I did in 2021: focus on submissions & competitions that benefit me in some way (either through prize money or publication); don’t apply for too many commissions or too much project work, especially if they have labour-intensive applications, and if they won’t benefit my own writing; apply for opportunities (funding / residencies etc.) that give me more time for my own writing.
After so much success in 2021, I’m starting to run short on things that I can actually submit. So my main strategy is to keep writing!
Happy New Year, and I hope it’s a successful one for all of us! x
In the words of Jonathan Larson, creator of the musical ‘Rent’: how do you measure a year in a life?
Over the past few years, I’ve tried a number of ways of summing things up – from the books I’ve read, to the number of things I’ve had published, to galleries of pictures. This makes the blog post useful for me to look back on, but it also can give the impression that my life can be parcelled neatly into sections, and perhaps even that I plan it out to be like that, ahead of time.
This year, perhaps even more than last year, life has been unpredictable. At least, it’s felt that way for me, in ways that have proved both positive and negative. This has been true of my personal life – but also my professional life as well.
I’ve been pretty lucky this year. Thanks to a combination of grants, prizes, and – let’s be honest – not being able to go anywhere to spend any money for a large chunk of the year, I’ve been able to spend a big part of 2021 writing.
That might sound like a strange thing for a writer to say – surely a lot of time is spent writing every year? But very few writers make their whole living from the actual words on the page, and normally I do a lot of workshops and events as well.
This year, however, the focus has been on the words – from working on a collection of short stories, to editing my poetry collection for submission, to drafting a second novel. (Which I managed to get sent off to my agent just before I finished for Christmas. Hurrah!)
So, to round up this year of actually writing:
A Few Good Things:
At the end of 2019, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Writer in Residence position at Gladstone’s Library, to be taken up in 2020. Obviously, this couldn’t happen as planned last year. So, in September this year, I drove to Flintshire, and stayed for a whole month in the UK’s only residential library. Day after day, I got to sit in my own little nook at my own little desk in the most beautiful library, surrounded by books and the hush of people’s thoughts.
It was during this month that I wrote the second draft of the novel. Second drafts are always hard. At least, I always think so. With the first draft, although you have the difficulty of starting from a blank page, there’s also no pressure. You’re not trying to produce something good – only to produce something. A mess of words which you can worry about shaping sometime later on.
The problem with the second draft is, this is that sometime later on, and now there’s pressure to mould something out of the mess, knowing all the time that if you can’t mould anything out of it, then all that drafting time will have been wasted.
At Gladstone’s Library, though, the process didn’t feel like a chore. Perhaps because of the atmosphere, which tingled with work and creativity. Or perhaps because it’s so much easier to work when someone else is doing all the cooking and cleaning for you. Whatever the reason, the month-long residency was a huge success, and I managed to come out of it with a complete second draft of the novel.
Which brings me onto…
Heinrich Böll Cottage
Another postponed residency from 2020, Heinrich Böll Cottage is a very different set-up to Gladstone’s Library. A self-catering cottage with a view of the sea, on Achill Island in County Mayo, it felt like the best kind of solo retreat, where I could spend my mornings editing the manuscript, my afternoons walking along some of the beautiful beaches the island has to offer, and my evenings reading by the fire.
This was also an incredibly soothing time. Something about being by the sea, and being able to explore in a way that felt both incredibly free, but also very Covid-safe in terms of my own independence. And, as at Gladstone’s Library, I felt like I accomplished way more than I would have done in the same time at home.
Although, speaking of accomplishments…
This year, I was lucky enough to win a Northern Writers’ Award!
The Northern Writers’ Awards are a series of annual awards, run by New Writing North, with the aim of supporting writers in the north of England at various stages in their careers. I’ve been applying for the awards for years (why not? They’re free to enter, which is a huge plus!) and this year, I was finally successful.
I was awarded a Northern Debut Award for Poetry. This not only consisted of a monetary grant, to support my writing time, but also a series of mentoring sessions with an established poet. So, towards the end of the year, I had my first session, working with the wonderful Malika Booker: two hours of intense interrogation of my poetry, by the end of which my brain felt like it had run a mental marathon. It was the most incredible experience for helping me to see my poems in a new light, and I can’t wait to continue the sessions into 2022!
And, continuing the funding theme, I was also awarded an Authors’ Foundation Grant this year, from the Society of Authors. This has paid for time for me to complete the manuscript of my novel, to get it ready to send to my agent. It’s been an invaluable help, and so great to know that I have some secure money in my account, even when everything remains so rocky.
Kendal Poetry Festival
And speaking of wonderfully intense experiences: in spring this year, Kendal Poetry Festival ran their first online festival – over 9 days instead of the usual long weekend, with so many events we soon lost count.
And my role in all of this? Guerrilla Poetry.
I first created Festival Survival Kits for Kendal Poetry Festival back in 2018, out of a project I’d previously run independently. Since then, the project has gone from strength to strength, and this year, the Survival Kits were bigger and better than ever!
This year, I also started to run an online workshop series. This has been a huge success – partly because it’s led to meeting some wonderful writers, who’ve come along to take part, and written the most incredible pieces.
I’m planning to carry on with these into 2022, and the next one is on Saturday 15th January – still with spaces if you’d like to come along:
Defying all my original expectations, 2021 actually managed to be a fairly decent year for publications and prizes as well.
After its delay due to Covid last year, My Name is Monster finally came out in paperback at the beginning of this year! It has a stunning blue and coral cover, and it’s been great, these last few months, actually getting to see it out and about in shops.
I also won the Palette Poetry Prize this year, with a poem called ‘The Gallery of America’ – about which judge Jericho Brown said: ‘This poem is amazing in its ability to speak to and through itself given its own history. But there is much more than just syntactic technique going on in these lines of definite desperation.’
In other poetry news, this year saw me win the Prole Laureate Poetry Competition, and have poems shortlisted for the Aesthetica Poetry Prize, and commended in the Verve Poetry Prize, the Magma Editors’ Prize, and the Cafe Writers Open Poetry Competition.
In fiction news, I had a story shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize, within which I won the Georgia Writers’ House Prize – leading to a residency in Tblisi, to be undertaken sometime in the coming year. I’ve also had stories shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Prize, longlisted for the Exeter Story Prize and the BBC National Short Story Award, and in the top 5% for the Bridport Prize.
I’m planning on doing my annual analytical post of all my acceptances and rejections sometime in the coming month, but for now, not a bad year for prizes all in all!
And, last but not least, My Name is Monster was also featured this year by the Boozy Book Club: an online book club & event series, which mails out the books along with a box of themed goodies. Here’s the Monster box – and I think you’ll agree it looks pretty spectacular.
As I said at the start of the post, things rarely fit into nice easy little boxes, and this year has seen a few extra things, which deserve an honourable mention. Perhaps the most notable of these was my appearance on Rosie Jones’ Trip Hazard: a comedy travel show in which comedian Rosie Jones explores various parts of the UK in the company of a celebrity guest. This was filmed in 2020, but aired earlier this year, including yours truly, talking to Rosie Jones & Scarlet Moffatt in Dove Cottage, and getting them to write poetry on the edge of Grasmere.
In other performance-related news, I wrote the lyrics to a song for the Three Inch Fools’ touring production of Robin Hood: ‘Branching Out’. The brief for the song was ‘folky feminist power ballad’. Here it is, sung by Maid Marian – aka Emily Newsome:
So what next?
The start of a year always feels like such a daunting and exciting time to me. Daunting because literally anything could happen. Exciting because literally anything could happen.
So far my plans for 2022 involve a lot of editing. I finished 2021 with three manuscripts at various stages of completeness: a poetry collection, a novel, and a collection of short stories. Of these, I’m in a waiting game with the novel and short stories (waiting for editorial feedback so I can move onto the next draft) – so I’m planning to start the year by working some more on the poetry collection. I have a big deadline for this in the spring, so hopefully after that, I might even be able to move over to writing something new – but that’s several months away yet.
And what else, apart from the writing?
I have a couple of trips planned in Scotland (Covid-permitting), as well as a few residencies due to happen later this year (again, Covid-permitting). I have one or two book events lined up – and other than that, I’m going to eagerly await what the year might bring.
And in the meantime, I’m going to edit, I’m going to write, and I’m going to read. And I can’t wait to get stuck back into all three.
2021: The Year in Pictures
Happy New Year, and here’s hoping 2022 brings you everything you’re looking for!