In our mid-twenties, panicked by the oncoming rush of time, and the arrival of the occasional grey hair in unmentionable places, myself and a couple of friends decided to make lists of things we wanted to achieve before the end of our next decade. Those much-derided ’30-before-30′ lists.

The idea, as I’m sure you’re aware, is to force yourself to make the most of those years in your late twenties. Just as everything can start to seem like it’s becoming a bit serious, and it gets easier and easier to fall into everyday patterns and get bogged down by work, it’s good to have goals to aim for. And personally, I’m a sucker for crossing things off lists. (Honestly, you should see my stuck-in-the-house-during-lockdown to do list – it’s pages and pages of all those little jobs that normally get pushed to the side.)

As with most things, I didn’t exactly stick to the rules. Instead of 30 things, I came up with 32 – though maybe this was overly ambitious, as I didn’t quite achieve all of my 32. But also, goals change. There are things I thought I wanted to do at the age of 25, which I’m no longer particularly bothered about. There are things I want now, and things I’ve already achieved, that I had no idea were even within the realms of possibility 5 years ago.

So, bearing in mind that the list system is therefore inherently flawed – how did I do?

USA Road Trip

32 Things To Do Before I’m 30:

  1. Publish a poetry pamphlet: Not only did I publish one poetry pamphlet, but I published two! Breaking the Surface, published by Flipped Eye in 2017, and then Assembly Instructions, published by Southword in 2019, as a result of winning the Munster Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition.
  2. Write and publish a novel: Originally, this was ‘write and publish a Mills & Boon’ – something myself and another writer friend had challenged one another to attempt, over several glasses of wine. At the time, I had no concept that I might actually write and publish a literary novel. And now, I have no desire to complete the (utterly dreadful) 10,000 words of smutty story I have hidden somewhere in depths of my laptop. The goal changed slightly, so I changed the listing accordingly. My Name is Monster was published by Canongate in 2019.
  3. Travel to Antarctica: I did it! By the skin of my teeth. With the speed at which everything around Coronavirus has moved, it’s hard to imagine that just three weeks ago I was standing in the middle of a snow blizzard, surrounded by penguins. I’ve wanted to visit Antarctica ever since we did a geography project about it at school, and the trip was everything I hoped it would be and more. Every single day – almost every single moment – there was something new to wonder and marvel at.
  4. Travel to at least 5 new countries: 5 countries and more! These were: Morocco, Canada, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ireland, Iceland, Hungary, Switzerland, Argentina, Uruguay & Brazil. And, whenever borders open again, I’d love to visit a few more!
  5. Visit Lizzie in Barcelona: At the time, my friend Lizzie lived in Barcelona, and in November 2015, we were able to spend a few days soaking up all the Gaudi architecture, wandering along the beach, and eating all the churros we could manage.
  6. Visit Jessi in Portland, Oregon: Even more epic than the trip to Barcelona, the trip to Oregon turned into a 5-week extravaganza, including a 3-week road trip up the west coast of the US, from just north of LA, all the way into Canada, and finishing with a relaxing couple of weeks at Jessi’s parents’ house, enjoying the sights of Oregon and the tastes of the delicious local bakery.
  7. Drive around Iceland’s Route 1: This dream came true in June 2017. For around ten days, we drove around the island of Iceland, exploring waterfalls and glaciers, basalt columns and beachs, winding fjords and geothermal pools. It’s not for nothing that people rave about Iceland.
    Iceland
  8. Island hopping in the Pacific: This is a slightly complicated one, because I’d already done it when I made the list (on a trip to Fiji in 2010, when I was living in Melbourne), but the plan was to do it again, elsewhere. So, while I’m counting it as something I have done (because technically I have), I’d still like to do it again somewhere else in the future.
  9. Take a solo trip that lasts at least a month: I’ve done a few of these over the past few years – Cambodia & Vietnam in 2017, the USA in 2019, and the trip I’m on right now (South America, Antarctica & Australia). Granted, I haven’t been on my own the whole time on any of them, but I have been away from people I knew previously. And let’s face it, solo travel is rarely completely alone the whole time, is it? Meeting new people is part of the fun!
  10. Spend at least a week at the Edinburgh Fringe: When I made this list, I anticipated spending a week at the Fringe as an audience member. I never dreamed I’d end up taking a show up there myself! But in 2017, myself and composer Stephen Hyde finished writing a 3-woman musical, The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash, and in the August, a student production company took the show to the Fringe. I have to say, standing on the Royal Mile, flyering day after day, gives a very different perspective on the festival than just attending as an audience member.
  11. Visit Ireland: This is something I’ve managed to do not once, but twice: the first time on a brief hop over to Dublin to attend an award ceremony; the second to read at Cork Poetry Festival, and to spend a few days soaking up the city. I’m also headed over to County Mayo for a couple of weeks for a residency this autumn, and I can’t wait to explore another part of the country.
  12. Road trip the coast of California: I’ve already mentioned this one in the context of visiting Portland, OR, as what started with ‘the coast of California’ ended up expanding in both directions, to include Vegas, Arizona, Oregon, Washington & part of Canada. It was an incredible trip – and one I only wish we’d had more time for. Thank goodness for shared driving!
  13. Drive a convertible (roof down): X
  14. Take a road trip in a camper van: Ok, so it wasn’t exactly a camper van, but I’m going to count it anyway, because it pretty much fulfilled the purpose of a camper van. In Iceland, to drive around Route 1, we hired a 4×4 with a pop-up top-box tent attached to the roof rack. This meant we could create a little kitchen area on the back seat (easily accessible if we wanted to reach back and grab something to snack on), and that we had our accommodation with us wherever we went. No need to pitch a tent, either, other than just flicking the little clip on the side of the top box and then unrolling our sleeping bags. All the ease of a camper van, but with all the (much needed in Iceland) agility of a 4×4!
  15. Go on a writing retreat by the sea: In January 2018, myself and 4 other poets spent a week at a hotel in St Ives, looking out over the sea and writing poems. During the day, we’d write / walk / swim in the sea (or at least some of us would – it was a bit chilly for me), and then in the evening we’d come together to workshop what we’d written. It felt so good to be able to work on a poem, then clear my head with some brisk sea air, before going back to the poetry. Just thinking about it has got me excited for my 2 weeks by the sea in Ireland this autumn.
    St Ives - writing retreat
  16. Go to a music festival: Technically, Port Eliot Festival describes itself as a ‘free-ranging festival of ideas’ – but one of these components is music, so I’m definitely counting it. (Another component is literature, which was how I ended up there, doing an event for My Name is Monster.) Besides, one of my top events of the festival was a music event – and if you ever get a chance to experience Charlotte Church’s Late-Night Pop Dungeon, do it.
  17. Order room service: Yes! This was another last-minute crossing-off of the list. While I was in Argentina, visiting Iguazu Falls, there was a tropical thunderstorm, complete with torrential rain that would’ve been impossible to go out in even for a moment, without coming back looking like I’d jumped in the hotel pool with all my clothes on. So I stayed in, ordered burger & chips and a beer, and wrote some of my postcards, listening to the drumming of the rain on the roof.
  18. Hold a conversation in Spanish: I’m not sure I could do this any more, because we all know languages disappear if you don’t use them – but I did it at the time. In late 2015, I went on a week-long intensive Spanish course, just outside Valencia, where I learned some basic Spanish. Enough to have a conversation about my favourite animal and which way to get to the supermarket, anyway!
  19. Climb a mountain: Yes! This is one I’m hugely proud of, because I’m not the fittest of people, and I find long steep climbs a bit of a struggle. But in 2018, as part of my trip to Morocco, I decided to bite the bullet and book a trek in the Atlas mountains. When I booked, it seemed to say you could choose on arrival whether you did the easy, medium or hard versions of the walk. When I got there, it turned out there was only one option. When I checked this against the original options a few days later, it turned out to be the hard version – and it included an ascent (thankfully not starting from sea-level) of the 2700m Tamalaroute. Thankfully, the view from the top was incredible.
  20. Undertake (and complete) a multi-day walk: As it happens, I ended up completing two of these – both of which felt like an enormous achievement. One was the trek mentioned above, in the Atlas mountains: 25 miles (around 68,000 steps) over 3 days – including a lot of steep ups and downs, and even a slightly dodgy river crossing. The other was somewhere considerably warmer: Sapa, in northern Vietnam, which was another 3-day trek through the rice terraces, staying in homestays along the way. Both times I doubted my own ability to complete the trek. Both times I felt a surge of joy at the achievement.
  21. Be able to run a mile without collapsing / seizing up / giving up and walking: This is another one I’m not sure I’d be able to do right at this precise moment, so maybe I’d better get back into practice, because not so long ago, I decided to start going running. And yes, I did indeed manage to run a mile without once stopping to walk. And I know a mile is nothing to people who run marathons, but to me, who hates running, it’s huge. Determined to be able to do this again by the end of the year.
  22. Do 30 sit-ups in a row: Again, this is something that I could probably just about still do now, though I’d feel it in the morning. But I went through a phase of doing sit-ups every day, and admittedly did feel better for it. Another one to get back into in my 31st year!
  23. Take a photography course: A few years ago, I took part in a photography course at my local Community Development Centre, across two Saturdays. To be honest, I still get confused by the aperture settings and shutter speed and so on. I can work it all out if I have to, but not quickly enough for it to be useful in the situation of having to take a photograph. One thing it has given me confidence with, though, is thinking about (and experimenting with) framing. And who knows? Maybe in the future I’ll try to go back to all the manual stuff, too.
  24. Bake at least one cake: This is something that has been a huge success. From basically never baking, I’ve become someone who bakes pretty often – from cupcakes, to birthday cakes for friends, to even the occasional gingerbread biscuits at Christmas. And what’s more, I love doing it. (And eating the results, too, of course.)

    Birthday cake - 32 things to do before I'm 30
    Indominus Rex birthday cake
  25. Knit or crochet something (anything will do): This one is ongoing, as I’m in the middle of crocheting a blanket. So far, I’ve crocheted all the individual squares, but I still have to sew them all together. I guess that’s probably a task for a few months’ time, curled up by the fire on a chilly autumn night.
  26. Make an item of clothing, which is acceptable to wear in public and doesn’t fall apart: X
  27. Own (and have reason to wear) a full length ball gown: X
  28. Give cards / chocolates / flowers to a stranger / strangers on Valentines Day: A few years ago, I distributed sweets & poems to strangers on Valentines Day, as part of my Poetry Plaster Pack project. This project has morphed over the past couple of years, into the Fesitval Survival Kits at Kendal Poetry Festival, where audience members receive poetry and other goodies in a little pack, as part of the festival’s ‘guerrilla poetry’ projects.
  29. Buy a piece of original artwork: I’ve done this a few times over, from buying sketches in San Fransisco, to buying a beautiful glazed bowl at an art sale in Oregon. But buying artwork is something I’d like to do more of in the future – partly because I want my walls to look good, but also because I think it’s important to invest in art and in artists. After all, if nobody invested any money in the arts, I’d quickly be out of a job.
  30. Finish reading The Well of Loneliness: X
  31. Achieve 1000 twitter followers: Well and truly achieved! The current count is over 2000. This goal was about expanding my social media reach, for professional reasons, so that I would be able to engage more easily with readers, and to network with other writers / people working in the literary industry. I know there’s this idea that twitter is basically just a lot of people shouting into the void, but personally that’s never how I’ve experienced it – maybe because of the things I tend to tweet about, and because of the twitter circles I’m part of. But for me, it’s a place of conversation about books & literature, a place of mutual support, and of sharing of opportunities. And yes, ok, also for pictures of cats & coffee – because why not? And if you don’t follow me on twitter and fancy it, then go for it!
  32. Glamping: And last, but not least: back on our epic road trip up the west coast of the USA, we stayed a couple of nights on the outskirts of Seattle. It was an Airbnb, and the property was a yurt surrounded by fairy lights in someone’s back garden, where we woke up in the mornings to the sound of whale music from the owner’s meditative therapy practice next door.

So how did I do, in numerical terms?

28 / 32

Not bad, when you consider how much goals can change over the course of 5 years. And the ones I didn’t achieve? I’d still like to drive a convertible some day, even if it’s only a short drive around the block to try one out.

I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact I’ll probably never finish reading The Well of Loneliness, but then who knows? Maybe in another 5 years, I’ll pick it up and finally get to tht end of it. The same with making an item of clothing. Possibly, after I’ve finished the crocheted blanket, I can make a start on a hat or something? As for that full-length ball gown, well, I’m much less bothered about that than I was 5 years ago. To be honest, I can’t even remember why I wanted it so badly. Strange, how in just the space of 5 years, our priorities can shift so completely.

And as for the next decade? Maybe I’d better make a start on creating a ’40 before 40′ list now instead!

Novels are long. Really long. So long, that even if you’re full of ideas & enthusiasm when you start writing one, there’s almost definitely going to come a point when you’re not going to be quite as certain.

Sometimes, this is just a case of motivating yourself. After all, 70,000 words plus of writing, rewriting and rewriting again is a lot of time to keep yourself engaged. You’re bound to get frustrated with it from time to time, and it can be so easy to find a million things you’d rather be doing than writing your novel: baking; cleaning the windows; answering emails; scrubbing the toilet with a toothbrush… It’s a case of reminding yourself what you love about the novel you’re writing, and then making yourself get back to it.

But sometimes, it isn’t just about making yourself a big pot of coffee and chaining yourself to the desk. Sometimes, you can be hugely motivated to write, and yet still find yourself stuck in a particular scene. There are hundreds of reasons you might find your story isn’t really going anywhere. But there are also ways to help yourself over the hurdle of that difficult scene.

1. Go back to basics.

If I’m stuck on what’s going to happen in a scene, I often find it’s because I haven’t done enough preparatory work. Often, this boils down to me not knowing my characters well enough. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – every writer works differently. Some writers plan everything in meticulous detail, constructing a ‘beat-by-beat’ of each scene, so that they know exactly what has to happen when, and then they just have to write it. Some writers go in knowing absolutely nothing. They start with a phrase or a first line or a vague idea, and build the whole thing up through the drafting process.

Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. I like to plan just enough so that I have a vague idea of what’s going on, but not so much that there’s nothing left to discover in the writing process. I think of it a bit like walking through a tunnel under a mountain. I don’t need to see the whole route, but nor do I want to be blundering about in the dark. As long as I can see the next few feet in front of me, and have a vague idea of where the tunnel might bring me out, then that’s fine.

The good thing about this way of working is that I’m always getting to know more about my characters, the whole time I’m writing them. The less good thing is that I don’t know everything about my characters when I start writing – which means that sometimes, I have to go back and do some of that ‘preparatory work’ part way through the drafting process.

Often if I’m stuck, it’s because I’ve lost sight of what my character wants.

Everybody has something that drives them. Most of us are driven by multiple desires at once – some short-term (I’m cold and want to get warm) and some long-term (I want to be the first woman on the moon). The chances are, you’ll already have figured out what your character’s long-term desire is, during the planning process. But in the individual scene that you’re stuck on, maybe that long-term desire isn’t what’s driving them, and they’re being driven by something much more short-term. Maybe they have two or more conflicting desires – after all, most of us do. But in almost every moment, there’s going to be a desire that comes out on top.

One of the best books I’ve ever read, for understanding character-building, is Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling. I’d recommend it for anyone wanting to understand character and build up a character-driven narrative.

Once you know what a character wants, you can put problems in their way, and see how they go about solving those problems, in order to achieve their desire. Goal + obstacles = story.

If you want a perfect example of how desire + obstacle can create narrative, watch The Martian. Without giving too much away: Matt Damon’s character is stuck on Mars, and his goal is to survive long enough for somebody from earth to send a rescue mission. It’s a hostile environment, where the obstacles are stacked against him. Each time he crosses an obstacle, another one rears its head. Not only does this create narrative drive, it also gives the narrative a sense of tension and release, as we follow the character’s desire to live.

‘At some point, everything’s going to south on you… and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem – and you solve the next one – and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.’ – The Martian

2. Make characters interact.

It can be so easy to write long extensive scenes in which a character sits in a room, possibly looking out of a rain-blurred window, contemplating life. I get it. Let’s face it – that’s quite possibly what you, the writer, are doing a lot of during the writing process, and they do say to write about what you know…

I wrote a whole novel where (for a significant chunk of it) the protagonist believes she’s the last person left alive on earth. The temptation to have her sit down and just think highly philosophical thoughts for long swathes of text was huge. But at the end of the day, that rarely makes good narrative. And if you’re stuck, maybe it’s because nothing is actually happening in your book. I recently spoke to a friend who was having trouble with a scene she was writing for precisely this reason. Her character was simply standing by the window, raising the tension and giving the writer a chance to describe the carpet tiles in great lyrical depth.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with lyrical description. Some of my favourite writers have this lyrical gift in spades. But when you do describe something in great detail, it has to be a choice, and not just as a way of stalling because you’re not sure what’s going to happen next.

My advice to my friend? Bring another character into the scene. Force them to interact.

Of course, how they interact will depend on who the other character is, and on their relationship to character number one. And I mean that in narrative terms, not just in terms of whether they’re the character’s sister or boyfriend or a distant stranger.

Let’s say that Character A (the one previously sitting and pondering the rain) is the protagonist. What is Character B’s purpose in the story? Are they there to assist the protagonist? Or are they the antagonist? If they’re the antagonist, then maybe they’re the one providing those obstacles we talked about in the previous section. (Think of the way a villain tries to foil the hero in a superhero film.) If they’re there to assist the protagonist, maybe the two of them are overcoming an obstacle together (think Thelma & Louise).

Still stuck on how to make your characters interact? Give them a task to accomplish together. It can be as simple as cooking a meal, but the way they interact during it will reveal a lot about their characters, and about their relationship with one another.

3. Start a fire.

If that interaction still isn’t getting you anywhere, then try something more dramatic. Give your character or characters a catastrophic event to react to. The beauty of rewriting is that you can always cut this event later, if you decide it really doesn’t fit your plot. But it can be a useful tool to get you past a difficult stage in the writing process.

In her book A Novel in a Year (based on the newspaper column of the same name), Louise Doughty advises crashing an aeroplane into a hospital, then seeing how the characters respond. Obviously that’s a hugely dramatic event, involving a whole community. But if you wanted to make it smaller and more contained, then why not start a fire? (In your novel, of course – not on your desk.) It could be a big house-burning-down sort of fire, or it could be a small more easily containable fire. Either way, it’s the sort of emergency that brings character traits to the fore, and heightens relationships between them.

I always think that writing fiction is somewhere between finely tuned craft and childlike play. So don’t be afraid to play around with your characters. Put them in unusual situations. Write fan fiction of your own novel, if it helps, to see how your characters would respond in different circumstances. You can always pick and choose the bits you want to include later on.

writing in cafes - notebooks and coffee

4. Skip back a bit.

It’s a well-known truism that, if you run into problems on page 200 of your manuscript, the likelihood is that the original problem started on page 100.

I forget who originally said this, but it’s certainly proven true for me – not just in fiction, but sometimes in poetry as well, albeit on a smaller scale. Often, the bit you’re struggling on isn’t the problem. The problem is buried somewhere much earlier.

I suppose it’s a bit like catching a cold. The first time you cough or sneeze isn’t the first instant you’ve caught the cold. The illness has probably been there for a few days or hours, incubating as your immune system begins its attempts to combat it, before the symptoms show themselves. It’s the same with fiction. Something happens early on in the novel, or your character makes a wrong choice, and suddenly 100 pages later, you find you’ve reached the dead end.

The trick is working out what that choice was. Try working out what events led to the scene that you’re stuck on. Can you change one of them slightly?

Over-simplified example: a girl is walking through a forest, on the way to her grandmother’s house. She sees a wolf, and wisely avoids talking to him, because she’s always been told to avoid wolves. There’s a moment of dramatic tension where you think she’s going to break her promise to her mother, but because she’s the hero, she never does – so she continues through the wood till she arrives at the cottage. When she gets there, she has tea with her grandmother. Suddenly, you’re stuck in a scene where Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are making smalltalk about the weather and nothing is really happening very much.

You have two options.

Option 1 is to introduce a big dramatic event, such as a fire. Maybe a spark from the grate ignites the rug, and before you know it the whole cottage is in flames, forcing them out into the forest, and perhaps straight into the arms of the prowling wolf, who has followed Red Riding Hood to the cottage. Suddenly, you have a crisis, and a problem they have to solve. You have a story again.

Option 2 is to go back to a point earlier in the story, where Red Riding Hood meets the wolf. Instead of ignoring him as she’s been told to do, she tells the wolf all about where she’s headed, giving him time to reach Grandmother’s cottage ahead of her, to eat Grandmother, and assume his disguise. We change the protagonist’s actions, and by doing so also introduce a character flaw: her reckless disobedience (the flaw which, in the Roald Dahl version of the story, becomes her saving grace). Once again, we now have a story.

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5. Skip forward.

If you’ve tried looking backwards in the story, and got nowhere, then you’re always free to go the other way, and to skip forwards. After all, there’s no rule saying you have to write your novel chronologically. It’s perfectly acceptable to write the bits where you know what’s going to happen, and then fill in the blanks later.

(Programmes like Scrivener are particularly useful for this, as they allow you to segment your writing project into scenes and chapters, then move them around if necessary.)

You might not even know what order the scenes go in just yet. That’s also fine. When I was drafting My Name is Monster, while I did have a vague notion of the direction of the story, there were definitely bits that I moved from one part of the novel to another during the writing process. At one point I had the whole manuscript printed out and arranged by scene on my living room floor, with all my furniture pushed back to the walls, so I could rearrange the order by moving the pages around from one place to another.

So if you’re stuck? Move on and write something else. You may get to a scene later on, where you realise X needs to have happened already in order for Y to happen later. Suddenly, you realise X is the missing ingredient to the scene you were stuck with all along.

Whatever happens, the important thing is to not let it get the better of you. Don’t give up – and keep writing!

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object

At the roof of the Rockies is the watershed
of America, the great divide,

where you can stand astride
the continental split, can gob your spit

(each gene-coded cell of it) one hawk to east
then west – then watch as each

begins its slow
globular journey towards opposing waters:

Pacific – deep, entrenched
and quarrelling fire; Atlantic –

dogged wrecker of ships, beating grey
determination on its coasts.

This is how a body can be pulled
in two directions:

my mother, newborn and uprooted
to a hospital crib,

her parents’ marriage
gone to tectonic drift

and both her grandmothers warm
colliding fronts from either side.

They say this mountain was a man
once, who wished to go on forever

and was granted. A strong
desire phrased badly –

though I too have wished
to be landscape in a foreign age,

to be cribbed in whole forests of life,
to be more than enough,

to undergo
the conflicting tug

of oceans, take heart
from their fierce competitive love.

*

‘An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object’ was longlisted for the 2019 University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Competition, and was first published in the competition anthology, Silence.

There’s a lot of mystery around how a writer makes money. A couple of months ago, I had a great question from a teenager, who heard I was a writer, and wanted to know how many books I’d written. Or, to be clearer – how many books had I earned lots of money from?

Adjusting for inflation (between what counts as ‘lots of money’ to a writer versus what counts as ‘lots of money’ for most other people, and therefore not including my poetry pamphlets), I said, ‘One.’

His response? ‘How can you be a writer if you’ve only written one book?’

It’s a fair question. How can you make a living as a writer if you’ve only written one (full-length) book?

2019: How I Earned a Living (with Pie Charts):

At the beginning of 2019, I wrote a blog post about how to make a living as a writer, compartmentalising the different ways writers (including myself) can earn a living. It wasn’t an exhaustive list, as I don’t think these sorts of lists ever can be – after all, every writer is different, and we all work in different ways to find our own niches.

But it did attempt to break down the various ways that I, personally, earn my income.

I broke my income for 2018 down into sections. I made pie charts and line graphs to illustrate the proportions of these income sections, and to emphasise the inconsistency of earnings month by month. I made the whole thing as clear as I could possibly make it – but with one final caveat: just as a writer’s income is inconsistent month by month, so it’s also often inconsistent year by year.

2018 was an exceptional year for me. I sold the rights to my debut novel, and delivered on my final manuscript, which meant that not only did I receive an advance, but that two thirds of it were paid to me over 2 consecutive months. Cue a big income spike, and a large proportion in the ‘advance’ section of the income pie chart. But the flip side of that was that, as I didn’t publish a book in 2018, it was quite a slim year for readings, talks & festival appearances.

The upshot? The 2018 graphs & pie charts were only part of the picture.

So I’ve decided to break down my 2019 income in the same way – to look at the ways my income was earned in a very different year: one where I didn’t sell the rights to any new books, but my debut novel was released and I had all the attendant income that comes from talks & readings etc alongside that release.

As with 2018, I’ve broken my income down into sections. In 2018, these were:

  • earnings from commissions
  • earnings from running workshops (for young people and for adults)
  • income from competition wins
  • earnings from readings / talks etc
  • money from my advance on my novel
  • income from other arts-related work (mostly, but not limited to, arts administration roles)

One mark of how my income pattern has changed since last year has been the need to add more categories. As my career has grown, I’ve started to get different types of work – which makes sense, when you think about it. So for 2019, I’ve added the following income categories:

  • residencies
  • radio work
  • grant funding

I’ve also had to widen ‘money from advance on my novel’ to include other book sales income, as well as ALCS payments and payments for writing included in magazines & journals.

As becomes very quickly apparent, my biggest income in 2019 came from the 3rd & final part of my novel advance, and from grant funding. This makes sense: a lot of the year was taken up with working on a poetry project, which I was lucky enough to receive an Arts Council DYCP (Developing Your Creative Practice) grant to help fund.

The rest of my income, as in 2018, is made up of a combination of other bits and bobs. The ‘portfolio career’ as it’s so attractively called. One interesting factor (at least to me) is that while I did earn some income in the ‘other arts-related work’ category, it was so little as to be rounded down to 0%. For me, this is a good thing, as I deliberately tried to cut down on the paid admin work in 2019, in order to be able to focus more on the actual writing.

But what does the pie chart look like without those two anomalies: the novel advance & the Arts Council grant?

With the anomalies removed, the big changes immediately become more apparent. Let me pop the two graphs (2018 & 2019) side by side here for comparison:

The main changes from 2018-2019:

  • More categories. I’ve already mentioned this, but I’ll mention it again: with the novel coming out, other avenues of work have opened up to me. The two main ones are writing residencies and radio work (both writing & present a programme of my own, and appearing as a guest on others).
  • Increase in readings & talks. From only 2% in 2018, I earned 15% of my (adjusted) 2019 income from giving readings & talks. Again, this makes sense, with the novel coming out. You’re more likely to get readings when you’ve got a recently publish book to promote.
  • Decrease in workshops. This might seem surprising, given that you could expect publication to lead to an increase in workshop bookings. But in 2018, most of my workshops were in schools. The increase in residencies, and being away from home a lot in 2019, meant that I wasn’t around to do as many school workshops as I had done the previous year. An increase in one corner leads, quite naturally, to a descrease in another.

Income by Month:

But what about how my income was distributed across the year? I’ve already talked about how a writer’s income is rarely evenly distributed. As always, this was the case in 2019:

It’s instantly clear that April was a low month – as it was the previous year. In 2018, this was largely because of Easter. In 2019, it was because I spent a chunk of March, and all of April, away in the States, on a research trip (funded by the Arts Council Grant) and on a residency (unpaid). So, while there may not have been any income, there was also basically nothing in the way of outgoings – other than what was already paid for by the grant.

The big spike in June is because of my novel advance. The second-highest point, in January, is because this was when I received the bulk of the Arts Council Grant.

These two anomalies aside, the graph looks more like this:

As you can see, once those anomalies are removed, the first half of the year suddenly starts to look quiet erratic. February and March were pretty good months (thanks largely to a well-paid residency & commission in February, and a good-sized competition win in March), but January & April’s income was non-existent.

But in the second half of the year, after the publication of the novel in June, things settle down a bit. Sure, there’s still a bit of a summer slump, and the standard December dip – but that’s to be expected when you’re working freelance in an industry not directly connected with school holidays or Christmas.

Will things continue in a nicely predictable, secure & even way into 2020? Doubtful. From what I’ve got in the calendar so far, the first half of the year is all over the place – and it’s a bit too far away to make any predictions about the second half just yet. But as long as there’s something coming in (and hopefully a bit of a buffer in the bank account), fingers crossed the electricity will stay on, and there’ll still be food in the fridge.

Ok – so what am I saying with all of this?

I know, I know. This is just a bunch of graphs. Apart from the fact that I quite enjoy making pie charts, what’s the point of all of this?

When I made last year’s graphs, I wanted to point out how unstable a writer’s income can be, and how difficult it is to predict where the bulk of that income is going to come from. This year, my goal is something slightly different.

It can be so easy to assume, once a writer is published, and their book is on the shelves in Waterstones & in your local indie, that they’ve got everything made. A lot of people assume that a cheque comes through every month, with book royalties, and that the writer cashes this in order to cover their bills & food & coffees. I want to show that while, yes, publication has absolutely increased my income, earning a living as a writer still isn’t straightforward. There’s still a need to diversify. There are still months when you can earn almost (if not completely) nothing at all.

Does that sound a bit too doom & gloom? It isn’t meant to. But if you want some consolation, then here it is: sure, making a living as a writer can be difficult, and sure, you can have to turn your hand to lots of different things at once; but the advantage of that variety is that, once something starts to take off, you get to pick and choose, and you get to tailor your work to drop the bits you’re not so keen on, and amplify the bits you love. In other words, you get to create your own ideal job.

*

Read last year’s post:
How To Make a Living as a Writer

I arrive at the castle one afternoon at the beginning of January. It’s only a couple of weeks after the shortest day, and the sun is already low behind the trees when I pull up at the unmarked double gate. There’s nothing to indicate that I’m in the right place – only a keypad, and a road winding away between the trees. I punch in the numbers I’ve been given in the email, and the gates swing slowly open.

Curling own the wooded driveway, it’s easy to think of yourself as descending not just into a valley, but into a story. Light flickers on the carpet of leaves to either side of the road, and the first signpost you reach is a small wooden notice, with one arrow pointing uphill towards the library, the other pointing down towards the castle.

When the road rounds its final bend, the castle comes into view: the red stone of the medieval keep looking warm and soft in the late afternoon light. Behind it, the valley drops away into a sway of dark green pines.

This is where I will spend the next month, in a room with a view of the turret, working on my poetry.

Mistake number one: I overpacked on warm jumpers, and underpacked on lighter clothing. Given that I was going to a medieval Scottish castle in the middle of winter, I expected it to be cold. I had visions of myself wrapped in a blanket, huddling over my desk and hugging a hot water bottle. Yeah. No. The castle has heating.

That isn’t to say that it never got cold – it did. It is still a medieval castle, after all. And it was still January. But when the heating kicked in to the full, it also got pretty warm – and I realised very quickly that I should have packed more layers.

I also should have packed fewer books.

In a way, it was good to catch up on my reading, and start making headway through my ever-growing to-be-read pile. But this also meant I couldn’t take full advantage of Hawthornden’s eclectic and highly extensive library.

Most former Fellows have donated at least one book. Then there are all the previous winner of the Hawthornden Prize, not to mention books that have just been bought by the castle, often at Edinburgh Book Festival events the Hawthornden Trust has sponsored. The result is three separate libraries, and numerous bookcases, stuffed with books.

How many libraries?

That’s right. Three.

The main library is actually in a purpose-built modern building a short walk up the bank from the castle itself. This consists of three main rooms (plus a warren of non-library private rooms, that I never quite summoned up the courage to go nosing around), and mostly contains books by former Fellows, and books that have been bought to keep the library in stock. There are fewer classics, and many more contemporary books, which reflects this.

The second library is in what gets called the Studio (it took me a while to figure out these were the same place), and is just beyond the Drawing Room in the main castle. This was by far my favourite place to work, because of the big table for spreading out my work, and because of the stunning views down the valley. The only downside was that, because it has huge windows on three sides, it got fairly cold in there, so that was one place I was grateful for those thick woolly jumpers.

We didn’t actually discover the third library till about a week into the residency. It was across the courtyard from the main part of the castle, through a heavy studded door in the medieval keep. Because it was in the oldest part of the building, and because it was the middle of January, it was quite dark and chilly, so I don’t think any of us really sat in there. It definitely felt as though, if there were ghosts in the castle, the Keep Library was where they would hang out.

And the other rooms?

At times, being at Hawthornden felt so much like being in Agatha Christie adaptation, that I almost expected to hear a scream as someone discovered a mysteriously placed body. The Drawing Room was particularly good for this – partly because just calling it the Drawing Room was enough to summon up the image of Miss Marple, but also because we all gathered here before and after dinner every evening, to unlock the mysteries of each day’s silence.

Luckily, were just had the aesthetic of a Sunday afternoon murder mystery, and nobody actually went on a stealthy killing spree.

The bedrooms at Hawthornden are all names after famous writers (I was in Bronte), and are quite varied in terms of size and furnishing. They all have a desk, a chair and a bed. Mine was quite cosy, and felt like a fancier version of an old student room. A few of them were much bigger (the ones on the first floor even had double beds), and felt more like guest bedrooms – which is presumably what they used to be.

And what about the bathrooms, I hear you ask? Like most things in the castle, the plumbing is a mixture of old and modern. There were two bathrooms and a separate toilet on my floor, and another shower room on the floor below. One of the baths had taps from 1929, and was probably the deepest bath I’ve ever bathed in. Soaking in the bubbles, looking through the window at the turret, thinking about my novel, is probably the best way to spend an afternoon.

Let’s not forget the food.

One of the things I loved about the residency was the balance between structure and freedom. In many ways, my days were entirely my own, to do whatever I wanted – to read, to write, to edit, to wander the beautiful castle grounds. But the days were also punctuated by meals, which stopped me from lapsing into a totally nocturnal, structureless zombie, and ensured my days were as productive as they could possibly be. After all, it’s so much easier to work on a full stomach.

8am-9.30am: Breakfast

12-ish: Lunch (delivered to the rooms)

6.30pm: Drinks and gathering in the Drawing Room

7pm: Dinner

The food itself was delicious. I definitely put on weight at Hawthornden.

I had porridge for breakfast practically every morning (eaten from an old pewter bowl), and there was also toast, cereal and fruit if I’d wanted extra.

Lunch was delivered to the rooms every day in a Fortnum & Mason basket, left outside the door so as not to disturb the writing. It was soup, a choice of sandwiches (selected at breakfast), a choice of fruit, or carrot sticks with humus, and sometimes a Babybel. And, as if that wasn’t enough, there was always a plate of biscuits by the kettle, and a basket of fruit downstairs if we got peckish during the afternoons. (I think it would be impossible to go hungry at Hawthornden.)

Monday to Saturday, dinner was two courses (main & pudding), and was cooked by Ruth, the castle chef. Every single meal was so delicious, that I quickly had to make a rule for myself not to have second helpings. (Another writer had a similar rule, but hers was not to have thirds.)

On Sundays, it was a three-course dinner, served in the main dining room. Since it was January, we also had a Burns Night supper in there, complete with haggis and traditional speeches. As it happened, none of our group had dietary requirements, but I know that the castle does cater for different diets (vegetarian / vegan / gluten free etc).

What about the silence?

The other way that the days are divided is by the boundary between sound and silence.

One of the things that is best known about the Hawthornden residency is its rule of silence during the day. From the end of breakfast at 9.30am, till just before dinner, at 6.30pm, ‘silence must be maintained throughout the Castle’. This is to ‘preserve the atmosphere of “peace in decent ease” which William Drummond enjoyed at Hawthornden’.

Before I arrived at the castle, I was pretty nervous about this. I’m so used to living on my own, and talking to myself while I work, or bursting into song from time to time, that I worried I’d forget myself and break the rules.

And what if I wanted to make myself a cup of tea, or I needed the loo during the day? Would my fellow writers all be irritated by the noise of the toilet flushing, or the kettle boiling, or just my footsteps in the corridor?

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. While it’s true there were no long conversations during the day, we still all said hi if we passed each other on the way to make a cup of tea, and there was no weirdness about moving around the corridors and creaking the floorboards. It seemed to be the spirit of silence that counted, rather than actual silence.

The best bits:

Time to write: For me, the best bit of any residency is the time to focus on my writing. It’s being able to leave behind all the admin for a month – to set my out-of-office and know that nobody is expecting me to reply till the residency is over. At Hawthornden, this was even more pronounced, because there’s no WiFi at the castle, and even phone signal is patchy at best (though there are spots where you can get the odd bar – mostly in the Studio library, and sitting on the first floor toilet).

But it’s also all the extra time that appears in the day, when you don’t have to think about cooking, or washing up, or cleaning, or even doing laundry. The only thing you have to do is write.

Time to read, or walk in the woods: As well as doing the actual writing, it’s important to nourish the creative bit of the brain. Otherwise it’s like trying to draw water from an empty well. Luckily, Hawthornden was perfect for this. Not only did it give me time to catch up on my reading, but it’s also in the middle of beautiful woodland.

There are two walks in the castle grounds.

The Lady Walk is essentially a clifftop walk, from the castle to a set of carved stone steps, leading down to Wallis’s Cave, which is carved in the shape of a cross. It’s horrendously muddy, and quite high up in some places, so isn’t for the faint-hearted, or for bad weather days.

The Circle Walk takes about 25 minutes, and is, as its name suggests, a circle around the castle, which offers great views of the cliffs that the castle stands on, and can be extended to walk a bit further downstream along the river.

Inspiration: Let’s be honest: staying in a medieval castle, on the edge of a cliff, in the middle of a forest in Scotland – bumping into deer while out in the grounds, lying in the bath and listening to the peregrine falcons, and falling asleep listening to the wind whistling around the turret – it would be difficult not to be inspired. And that’s even without the Pictish caves underneath the castle, or the view along the valley, or the occasional bus trip into Edinburgh city centre.

Other writers: As if staying in a fairytale medieval castle wasn’t enough, I was also surrounded by other creative people. There’s something about being in a building, sitting in your room and working, knowing that everyone around you is sitting in their rooms and working, too. It creates a spirit of endeavour.

In the evenings, this was followed by some fascinating discussions (punctured, of course, with some general chats about TV series, or anecdotes about our days). There were so many days at Hawthornden where my mind felt like it was working overtime, and I was making connections left, right and centre. Which is probably why the residency felt so productive.

Ok then – what did I achieve?

It’s often difficult to tell the impact of a residency till long after it’s finished. The mind is still busy turning everything over, processing all the thoughts you had there, and filtering them away for future use. I certainly had more ideas for things during that month than I had time to actually write about – many of which I might never get time to write about. In terms of ideas and inspiration, the achievements of the residency could keep coming long into the future. (Or it could not. Who knows?)

But in terms of physical output, I worked on both poetry and fiction at Hawthornden.

Poetry: I wrote some new poems, and edited some older ones. Some of these edits were the odd tweak here and there, but some were massive overhauls – the sort of thing where I need a concentrated period of very focused time to actually work my head around everything that’s in the poem. On a larger scale, I also edited (and re-edited, and re-edited) my collection – something I definitely couldn’t have achieved in the same period of time at home, with emails begging to be answered, and the dishes piling up on the kitchen counter.

Fiction: And, because I needed some space in between edits of my poetry collection, I spent the middle two weeks of the residency planning, and starting to write, my second novel. I’m only about 8500 words in at the moment, so it’s still a long way off yet. But I wrote enough to get my feet under the table, which is what I wanted.

I also took time to read, during the residency, without feeling guilty that I ought to be doing something else. For once, January’s books were a nice balance of prose and poetry:

  • The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman
  • The Hoopoe’s Eye, by Mark Carson
  • Festive Spirits, by Kate Atkinson
  • Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis
  • White Papers, by Martha Collins
  • Diary of a Somebody, by Brian Bilston
  • Sisters, by Jennifer Copley
  • The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue
  • Sal, by Mick Kitson
  • The Craft, ed. Rishi Dastidar

Any downsides?

Any residency has downsides. One of the downsides of Hawthornden was the amount of weight I put on due to how delicious all the food was. (Though the couple of glasses of wine with dinner each evening probably didn’t help. And admittedly, this was pretty much entirely my own fault.)

But in all seriousness – the Hawthornden Castle writers’ residency is quite an intensive experience. You’re staying in a castle with four other writers for a month, seeing each other every evening and most mornings, depending on what time you all make it down to breakfast. You’re all also working quite intensively during the days, so it could be easy for things to get fraught if you let them.

Luckily, we all got along very well, and were all quite amenable. We did have some pretty intense, and occasionally heated, discussions, but we always took great care to come out of them still friends, and to leave any intensity within a particular conversation, rather than letting it carry forward into our relationships with each other.

But I can imagine that, if there was somebody in the group who you didn’t get on with, or if there was a big personality clash, it could make it a very difficult month. I think it’s important to go into the residency being aware of this – and for everyone to make the effort to get along, and to respect each other’s views and personalities. And I’m so glad that this was the case for my group!

Would I go back?

Absolutely! Unfortunately, you have to wait five years before being allowed to apply again, so I won’t be heading back any time in the near future. But I’ll absolutely be recommending it to other writers!

 

How to apply:

For the Hawthornden residency, you have to apply the old-fashioned way. There’s no online application, or public email address, so you have to write a letter to the director, requesting an application form:

Hawthornden Castle
The International Retreat for Writers
Lasswade
Midlothian
EH18 1EG

The application form, once you receive it, also has to be submitted in hard copy, along with two professional references. The application deadline is in June each year, for residencies in the following calendar year.

Also read: A Few Thoughts On: Writing Residencies

Recently, I was asked to give the keynote speech at my former school’s A-Level awards evening. For me, ‘keynote speech’ always conjures up an image of corporate conferences, sharp suits, and glass tabletops that somehow never seem to show up anybody’s fingerprints but your own.

With that in mind, I decided to do something that was the antithesis of all of that, and to talk about failure. And because I failed to write a blog post for this weekend, I thought I’d share it with you here:

Failing at Your Own Game:

I was a student at QEGS from 2011-2018. I’m now a writer. When you say you’re a writer, something quite off happens in people’s minds – and most people picture something like this:

Or maybe this:

Or even this:

Either that, or they ask if you’re the next J K Rowling, and how many millions you’ve made from your latest novel.

I assume I was asked to come and give this talk because being a published writer constitutes some kind of success. And it’s true that being a published writer does mean you get to do book signings, and occasionally get your book in a bookshop window, or get to go on a writing residency abroad. I’m currently spending a month writing in a medieval castle just outside Edinburgh.

But the reality is that most days are far less glamorous than that. Most of the time, it’s just me, sitting at my kitchen table, trying to hit a word count, and drinking far too many pots of coffee.

So even though tonight is all about celebrating success – and congratulations again to all of you on your A-levels – I don’t actually want to talk about success. Instead I’m going to talk about failure.

I want everyone to stand up.

Take a moment to look at these books. Count how many you’ve read.

Ok. Now I want you to stay standing if you’ve heard of at least one of these books.

Now stay standing if you’ve read at least one of these books (or even seen the film). Two? Three? Four? Five?

Each of these books was originally rejected for publication. So for books that at one point in their lives were considered failures, look how many of you have read at least one of them.

(Ok, sit down now)

These are some of the more famous examples of books that have been rejected, which went on to be bestsellers, and some to become classics. But these books aren’t actually very unusual. All writers get rejected, again and again. I send work off to journals and magazines. I apply for residencies, and grant funding. I submit poems and stories to competitions. The majority of these get rejected. And this isn’t because I’m a bad writer (at least I hope not!). It’s just a normal part of being a writer.

In 2018, I decided to try to apply for 100 things – a mix of residencies, grant applications, competitions, journal submissions – anything that could result either in an acceptance, or in rejection. My idea was that I could then easily find out a percentage of how many applications were successful, with the idea of creating some kind of transparency around how much rejection writers are likely face.

I didn’t quite manage 100 applied, so I failed even in that – but I did manage 87. And then at the end of the year, I made a pie chart.

By the end of the year, over 60% of those applications had been rejected. 19% – less than one in five – had had success or partial success (so, publication, or a prize win or shortlisting). At the time I put this data together, I was still waiting to hear back from 18%, but I can now tell you that only one of those was a success – the rest were all rejections. So the overwhelming majority of my applications in that year were failures.

So my question is: what’s the point? If most applications fail, then why keep doing them? If to be a writer is to be a failure, why even keep writing at all?

The most obvious reason is that not all applications are failures. Some of them (even if it’s just a few) are successful, and of course you don’t know which those are until you’ve tried, so you have to keep throwing out your net in the hope of catching a fish.

But there are other reasons too.

One is that failure is something we can learn from. If I send a poem into a magazine, most of the time it’ll come back as a rejection. But this gives me an opportunity to look at what isn’t working in the poem – to rewrite it and make it better. Each time a poem gets rejected, it’s another opportunity to improve it, and another opportunity to turn that failure into some kind of success.

But I also think it’s worth challenging what we perceive as failure, and what we perceive as success.

To look at this firstly in terms of writing: there’s a great quote from poet Caroline Bird, which is: ‘Writing a poem is impossible and once you realise this, you’re free.’ What I think she means is that, when you sit down to write a poem, you have in your head the perfect image of what this poem might be. (I know not all of you are poets – stay with me here, I promise there’s a great life lesson coming.)

You sit down to write a poem, and you imagine it’s going to be deep and thoughtful, it’s going to be moving, and lyrically beautiful, and full of original and striking imagery, that people are going to be quoting for the next 400 years – and next think you know, you’re winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The poem I end up writing may well have some of those qualities (although I’m yet to be nominated for a Nobel Prize), but it’s never going to be as perfect as the poem I imagined in my head. There’s another quote, by French essayist Paul Valery, which is: ‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned’. In other words, there’s always more that you can improve on.

But that’s why I keep writing. If I can never succeed in writing the perfect poem, then in a way, every time I sit down to write a poem, I’ve already failed – because it’s never going to be perfect.

This could be a really depressing way of looking at things – but instead, I find it inspirational. If so-called failure is inevitable, then we need to rethink what success looks like.

I remember the poet Don Paterson talking about the process of getting a book published: how for years and years, you can strive to have a book of poems published, because this is your ultimate goal. You eventually manage to secure a publisher. You spend years sending the manuscript back and forth to your editor. Eventually, you’ve done everything you can. You’ve seen the cover design. The publication date is set. You’ve figured out what you’re going to wear for your launch party and invited all your friends. The box of books finally arrives and they’re beautiful – slim volumes of your poems, with that enchanting new book smell and your name printed on the cover. You open the book, scan your eye over the first poem – and realise there’s a typo on line 3.

You’ve finally reached your end goal – you’ve finally achieved what you thought was success, only for it to disappoint you.

So my definition of success as a writer isn’t about publication, or book sales, or winning the Nobel Prize (although obviously all of those things are lovely if they happen to you). It’s about being able to write, and to keep on improving my craft as a poet and a novelist. To always be learning more about how to write, and to keep on putting that learning into practice.

Once I started thinking of success in these terms, every day that I get up to write becomes a success. Every time I write a sentence that I’m particularly proud of, is a success. Every finished poem is a success. The only failure is not writing, and not engaging with the process of writing.

So ok, you’re not all poets – so what does all this have to do with you? Well, for any of you who do write, this might sound all too familiar. But as I promised, we can extrapolate these lessons out to cover any aspect of life, not just writing.

When I was at QEGS, I was one of those annoying students who was good at both maths and English. What I liked about maths was that there might be multiple ways of getting there, but in the end there was a single right answer. What I liked about English was that there wasn’t.

So what does success look like to you, personally?

It might be running a multi-million-dollar start-up, and having your own private tropical island somewhere. But it could equally be really getting to know that one aspect of something you’re interested in, becoming an expert in, say, coffee production, or the way a painting is put together. There’s no right answer for your life, and no one definition of success. The best bit about your life, is that you get to define what makes it successful.

When I was asked to give this talk, I had no idea what I was going to say to you all. So I asked a load of other people what they would want to tell their 18-year-old selves – and I want to end by sharing some of their thoughts:

  1. Be curious and pursue what you enjoy. Being an expert is safe and boring, and learning is much more interesting. You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy doing it.
  2. Look after with knees, because with luck, you have a long journey to travel together.
  3. As long as you’re kind to other people, it isn’t selfish to also be kind to yourself.
  4. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do with your life – you’ve got your whole lifetime to figure it out.
  5. The word ‘career’ also means ‘to travel downhill in an uncontrolled manner’. Job titles aren’t as important as you think. Lead with your heart, then let your head figure out how to get there. Remember that all those people who look as if they’ve got their lives completely sorted – they all have doubts and problems too. So resist the temptation to compare yourself to them.
  6. Enjoy the things that are enjoyable – don’t fall for the lie that there’s always a better party going on somewhere else. And if you do want a better party, by all means start your own.
  7. Whatever makes you different can end up being your superpower.
  8. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not capable of achieving your dreams. But make sure the dreams you’re dreaming are your own and not someone else’s.
  9. There are so many ways to get where you’re going; it might be university, or it might be an apprenticeship, or saving up to travel the world, or getting at job in Morrisons. What’s important is your own individual journey.
  10. It’s never too late to change your mind.

And lastly, because I’m talking about failure, I’m going to fail to stick to just ten points, so I want to add three of my own thoughts to finish on:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help, particularly when it comes to crowd-sourcing your speeches.
  • Make sure you can cook at least one fancy meal, so you’ll always be able to impress people.
  • And lastly, and most importantly, keep on failing. Failing is a way to remind yourself what you enjoy about something. It isn’t the end result that’s important; enjoy the process. Learn. Develop. In the words of Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’ And I’m going to add to Becket’s words, and say: don’t bother striving for somebody else’s definition of success; find your own definition of success, and fail at that instead.

So congratulations again on the success of your results – and here’s to the rest of your lives!

Ever fancied penning your novel in a medieval castle? Or pouring over poems in a cabin in the woods? Working on your script in a little apartment by the sea? Maybe what you’re looking for is a writing residency. But what exactly is a writing residency? And how do they work?

What is a writing residency?

First things first: not all residencies are created equal. Some offer more than others. Some last as much as a year, some only last a week or so. Some offer individual accommodation, some offer shared. Some pay, some don’t. Some even expect the writer to pay to attend, but that’s not the sort of residency I’m going to be focusing on in this post (more on those further down).

So what is a residency? Generally speaking, it’s a combination of accommodation & time to write. You get somewhere to sleep and somewhere to work. Sometimes, you also get meals, and / or a stipend, and / or travel expenses.

Sometimes, the residencies ask you to run a writing workshop, or to give a talk or something, in return. Sometimes you have absolutely no commitments other than working on your own writing.

I went on 3 residencies in 2019, and I’ve got another 4 lined up for this year. Here’s a quick run-down of what they offer(ed):

  • The Wordsworth Trust Poet in Residence, Cumbria, England: a month; a private study-bedroom in a shared house opposite Dove Cottage; payment; required to give a reading & run 4 workshops.
  • MacDowell Colony, New Hampshire, USA: 3 weeks; private bedroom in a shared house; a separate studio cabin in the woods; meals; travel expenses; no requirements other than writing.
  • Passa Porta, Brussels, Belgium: 4 weeks; private apartment in the centre of the city; travel expenses; stipend; participated in 2 translation workshops & wrote a blog post.
  • Hawthornden Castle, Scotland: 4 weeks; private room in shared medieval castle; meals; no requirements other than writing.
  • KSP Writers’ Centre, Perth, Australia: 3 weeks; private cabin; stipend; required to run a workshop, attend a literary dinner & give a library talk.
  • Gladstone’s Library, Wales: a month; private bedroom in residential library; travel expenses & stipend; meals; required to run a masterclass & give a talk.
  • Heinrich Boell Cottage, Achill Island, Ireland: 2 weeks; private cottage by the sea; no requirements other than own writing.

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

What’s so good about residencies?

Residencies give you time to write, away from the pressures of everyday life. Whenever I’m on a residency, I switch on my Out Of Office, (mostly) prepare and queue up my blog posts ready to go, and ignore my admin. (Ok, I’ll be honest – I do sometimes check my emails, just in case. But I restrict my email-checking to the occasional evening, and even then I only reply to the absolutely urgent ones. At some residencies, such as Hawthornden, there isn’t any wifi anyway.)

It’s amazing how much extra time there is in a day when you don’t have to fill half of it with answering emails and trudging through invoicing & expenses & admin. Particularly if someone else is making all your meals for you, as is the case with some residencies.

My 6 most productive weeks of 2019 were the 3 weeks of my MacDowell residency, and the first 3 weeks of my Passa Porta residency. I wrote way more than I’d normally have written during that time, and when I looked back on what I’d produced afterwards, some of it was quite different to what I think I’d have written at home. For me, these residencies pushed me qualitatively, as well as quantitively.

But residencies can also be time to read, and a chance to experiment with your craft. In contrast to MacDowell & Passa Porta, I wrote comparatively little during my Wordsworth Trust residency (though still probably more than I’d have written during the same period at home). What I did do, though, was oodles & oodles of reading – reading both poems, and books about writing poetry. I spent a lot of time thinking about the craft of poetry, and experimenting with my own style of writing – something which I’m sure contributed to my huge productivity at MacDowell a month later.

This is the sort of craft development that can easily get pushed to the side in everyday life, particularly when you’re having to write for commissions & deadlines etc, and so every poem has to be ‘good’; it can become difficult to make time to explore & experiment. Residencies can provide that time.

They can also be a way of meeting other writers – though this depends on the residency. For those residencies where there are a number of writers all there together (such as Hawthornden), it can be an excellent bonding experience, where everyone is working so intensively on their own manuscripts during the day, then coming together to eat and talk during the evenings.

For those residencies that are multi-disciplinary (such as MacDowell), it can also be a good way of meeting artists working in other forms, and of finding inspiration in conversations with non-writers.

I’ll be honest, a large part of my initial motivation to apply for residencies was the opportunity to travel. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love to travel, and residencies can provide a cheap way of doing that. If you can get a residency that provides travel expenses & accommodation, then you’ve essentially got a free trip to wherever it is that the residency is based.

Of course, residencies aren’t meant for sightseeing; they’re meant for working. But if you’re there for a reasonable length of time, then you’re going to need the odd day off anyway (trust me: residencies can be intense, and it’s good to break the cabin fever once in a while).

Another good way of exploring an area where you’re in residence can be to extend your trip. If your residency pays travel expenses, then there’s no reason you can find your own accommodation for a few days before or after your residency, and stick around to see the sights then.

Of course, beyond the tourism, travel & change of environment can be excellent for the work as well. Stuck on a manuscript, or just getting too easily distracted at home? A change of workspace could be exactly what the doctor ordered. And honestly, it doesn’t even have to be a beautiful cabin in the woods, or a medieval castle. I’ve had some of my most productive poetic breakthroughs in Travelodges.

But let’s look at the financial side of things for a moment, too.

Some residencies pay a stipend – which is sometimes a token amount to help you buy pasta & notebooks, and is sometimes akin to an actual wage. This means that you can actually earn money by staying somewhere gorgeous and working on your manuscript. Depending on what you have in the way of expenses back home, it’s even possible to save some of this stipend money to fund even more writing time back at home. In 2019, residencies formed a not insignificant part of my income.

Even for those residences that don’t pay anything, they can still make financial sense. For example: I live alone, in an old house that’s kind of pricey to heat, which means that my bills can be huge. By planning residencies during the winter, I can go whole months without having to heat my house. I might not be being paid to attend the residency (though fingers crossed I’d eventually get an advance on the manuscript I was working on during it), but I’m also minimising my outgoings enormously.

5 Things About: Writing on the Move

What’s not so good about residencies?

Maybe by now you’re thinking it all sounds too good to be true. Obviously, nothing is perfect. For me, the positives of residencies have always outweighed any negatives. But I like to be honest on this blog, so here are some of the downsides to residencies:

When you’re in a place for a concentrated period of time, there can be a huge pressure to produce work. After all, you have this precious gift of time, and if you don’t use it to create something incredible, then doesn’t that mean that you’ve wasted it?

This negative aspect is largely self-inflicted. After all, it’s extremely rare that a residency will ask you for a quantative breakdown of what you’ve produced during your stay. Which means that the strategy for dealing with this pressure has to come from you as well. After all, you know your ways of working better than anyone. But just remember that you don’t have to write 17 novels and 53 essays during your residency. It’s just as vital to work on your practice in other ways, by thinking, by reading, and by exploring the way that you work.

Although, speaking of productivity, it is also possible for a residency to go the other way: that you’re so overwhelmed by the residency’s other requirements of you (running workshops / giving talks etc) that you end up with very little time or headspace left for actual writing.

This is largely down to the residency, to make sure that they don’t overload you. But you should also make the effort to be aware of what’s required of you before you start, and to raise any concerns you have about workload with the residency coordinator ahead of time. This obviously doesn’t mean you can be a diva about it – the occasional commitment is fine, particularly if the residency is paying you a fee or stipend on top of the accommodation. But if the commitments outweigh the writing time, or if they keep being piled on beyond what you originally agreed to, then maybe it’s time to say something.

The other issue I want to talk about is loneliness.

Writing residencies can be intense, and they can also be lonely. Even when there are multiple writers / artists on the same residency, you can end up spending a lot of time inside your own head. And when it’s just you in an apartment, writing all day and reading every evening, then that loneliness can be hugely amplified.

Think of it like this: you’ve gone to a new town or city, where you don’t know anybody. You’re willingly spending hours (if not days) at a time shut up in your room or house or apartment. You don’t speak to anyone, much, except maybe the person on the checkout in the supermarket. You may not even speak the local language.

Now imagine this for four weeks. It probably isn’t long enough to make solid friends, the way you would if you were moving to a new city for good. But it is a long time to spend away from your normal social groups.

Of course, everyone reacts to isolation differently. There’ll be some people reading this, for whom even the thought of a few days without talking to anyone sounds horrific. There’ll be some of you who think a few weeks’ isolation sounds idyllic. At the end of the day, we all know our own limits – or at least we suspect them.

Take me, for example. I think I’m a fairly independent person. I’m an only child, so we never really had a houseful growing up. I live alone. I also live rurally. I work freelance, so I don’t have colleagues who I interact with on a daily basis. I’m generally faily happy in my own company, and I like knowing that I have my own space if I need to get away from it all.

But, during part of my residency in Brussels last year, I felt very, very lonely.

I was fine for the first two weeks, after negotiating the first couple of days of settling in – difficult whenever you go anywhere new. By week 3, I was starting to miss friends & family, but was still managing to put that aside to focus on work. I’d also starting going for days and afternoons out to explore a bit more, and to force myself out of the apartment. But by week 4, I was honestly a bit of a mess. I missed conversations with people. I missed the sort of interaction that comes from knowing someone really well – or from getting to know someone through shared intense experience.

Don’t get me wrong: the residency was amazing, the staff at Passa Porta were utterly lovely, and Brussels is a stunning city. I just realised that 3 weeks is pretty much my limit for that kind of isolated residency.

Which is fine. I learned something about myself during the course of the residency. I now know that I can discount any residencies longer than 3 weeks, if there aren’t other artists or writers in residence at the same time. I discovered the limits of my loneliness.

How to survive a writing residency:

That all said: what’s my advice for anyone going on a residency?

Do your research before you go. Because residencies can be so varied in terms of what they offer, and who they cater to, it’s worth knowing exactly what you’re getting yourself in for beforehand. This means there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises when you get there, and also that you can prepare for any talks & workshops before you go, so they don’t cut too much into your precious writing time.

Go with a project in mind. Remember that pressure to produce that we were talking about earlier? This can be exacerbated if you’re the sort of writer who works on more than one project at once. If you’ve only got the one residency, what do you start with? Your novel? Your poetry collection? Your short stories? Your epic fantasy saga spanning seven volumes? Do you try to dedicate a little bit of time to each? Knowing what you want to achieve from the outset can help you avoid wasting time on indecisiveness, and allow you to hit the ground running when you arrive at the residency.

Speak to people. A good way to combat the possibility of loneliness is to actually speak to people. This is obviously easier if it’s the kind of residency where there are multiple people there at once. But even if you’re on your own, make an effort to find people to talk to. Fellow writers. That person in the cafe. Even just a brief exchange with the person behind the counter in the shop can help with the feelings of isolation.

Take breaks. Yes, you’re there to work, and it can feel a bit like every day needs to be a 12-hour writing marathon, stopping only for toilet breaks and coffee. But that isn’t a sustainable way of working, and slowly concentration will begin to wane. Take breaks to read a book, to go for a walk, to sit in a cafe and drink coffee you haven’t reheated 3 times in the microwave. It’s a way of rejuvenating your energy – and it’s amazing how many Eureka moments can come when you actually step away from the writing desk.

Get out and about. By which I mean: don’t just take breaks in the immediate vicinity of your residency, but get even further away from the writing desk from time to time. During my MacDowell residency, a group of us took a whole day off to drive to a nearby town and try our hands at an Escape Room. It was completely unrelated to anything any of us were working on, but was also the best thing we could have done, to break that feeling of cabin fever we hadn’t even realised was beginning to set in.

Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not hitting your word counts. Yes, you’ve come with a specific project in mind, and you probably have goals you want to achieve while you’re in residence. But, while I absolutely believe that half the battle is just showing up to write, I also know that it isn’t a certain thing either. Sometimes, however hard you smack your head against your notebook or stare down that blank Word document, the words just won’t come. And that’s fine, too. You can have blank spells during a residency just as much as you can at any other time. The beauty of the residency is that you still have all that free time for creativity – so you can use it to read, or to freewrite, or to go for a walk and just think through your creative project. You can still be working, even when you’re not actually writing out words.

Pack snacks – and maybe a bottle of wine or two. This is a personal one, but I’m a big one for snacking, and I find it really hard to work if I’m hungry. So if I know I’m going somewhere that might not have easy access to a grocery shop, I always find it’s a good idea to stick a bag of biscuits in my bag – just in case. Even if I don’t end up eating them, I just like to know they’re there on the offchance I might need them. Plus, they’re a great way of breaking the ice. And the wine? Again: wine is nearly always a good way of making friends!

What to watch out for:

I said at the start of this post that not all residencies are created equal. The truth is that some offer much, much more than others. It isn’t always the case that the most respected residencies offer the most – but it is often the case that the less respected (and often less conducive to creativity) can actually take the most from the writer. The best way to avoid any upleasant surprises is to always read all the information available before you apply – just so you know what’s what.

A few things I’ve come across, which aren’t always bad, but which need to be noted, are:

Shared accommodation:

It’s quite common for residencies to offer writers a private bedroom / study-bedroom in a communal house, which may have shared bathrooms and communal workspaces – though you’re generally free to work in your room if you prefer privacy.

But I have also seen some residencies that only offer shared bedrooms (shared with another resident / residents, who you won’t meet till you arrive). I’ve even heard report of a residency that expected the writers to share a bed! Personally, I don’t think asking strangers to share a bed is ever appropriate, but I suppose the shared bedrooms thing is a matter of individual preference. If it’s something you’d be fine with, then go for it. Personally, I need my own space to work in.

Application fees:

A number of residencies charge a fee for you to apply. Usually, this is to offset the cost of processing the applications. After all, an individual residency might receive hundreds of applications, and somebody needs to process all of those, to check eligibility and ultimately to make a decision. That person probably needs paying, hence the application fee. Sometimes it can also go towards funding the residencies slightly, in the same way that the prize pot for a writing competition might be funded by the entry fees. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – some highly respected residencies charge a fee to apply. It’s just something to be aware of before you decide whether apply, so that you can budget it into your decision.

Fee-paying residencies:

I mentioned this at the start of the post, and I want to talk about it here, because some residencies not only charge a fee to apply, but also charge a fee to attend. Sometimes this is nominal – just enough to cover a cleaner’s fee, or maybe put something towards electricity bills. But sometimes the cost can be as much as (or even more than) the cost of a hotel.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with paying for a room / apartment / cottage to go and write in, but I would argue that this is something different from a writing residency. I would argue that this is more like a self-guided retreat – like the kind offered by Arvon & by Gladstone’s Library. You pay your money, and in return you get to stay in a peaceful & supportive environment, and work on your manuscript.

But the thing about retreats like these is that they’re not selective. By which I mean: anyone can book and go on one, in the same way that anyone can book a room in a hotel. Again, that’s absolutely fine. There are hundreds of great reasons why these models work, and why you might want to pay to isolate yourself and focus on your manuscript – many of them th same as the ones above in this blog post.

However, if there’s a selective application process involved, and then you have to pay the full cost of the residency in order to attend, then I always wonder: why not just book into a hotel instead? Why bother with the whole hassle of writing & submitting an application, then waiting to see if you’ve been successful, when you can just book a retreat at Arvon or Gladstone’s in minutes – and know what you’re getting as well?

I’ve even seen so-called residencies that charge writers a fee to apply, and then also charge an astronomical amount for the writer to actually attend the residency. That’s like paying £20 to be in with the chance of booking an apartment on Airbnb, then having to wait 6 months to find out if you got it or not. Why would you do that?

Fortunately, there are plenty of residency opportunities that don’t try to make lots of extra money from the writer, and that aren’t commercial retreats masquerading as exclusive residency opportunities. So as long as you do your research, there should always be a residency that will suit the needs of each individual.

Ok, so where can I go?

There are residencies all over the world, and far too many to list here, even if I did know them all. I’ll start with the ones already mentioned in this post:

  • The Wordsworth Trust Poet in Residence is in Grasmere, Cumbria (UK), and has so far been running every couple of years. They announce call-outs for applications through the e-news, so it’s worth signing up to their mailing list in their website footer.
  • MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire (USA) has regular call-outs for applications.
  • Passa Porta in Brussels (Belgium) runs its own writing residencies, which can be applied for directly. For UK-based writers, they work with the National Centre for Writing in Norwich, and applications are announced through their website instead.
  • Hawthornden Castle, just outside Edinburgh (UK), has an unusual application process, in that everything is done by snail mail, and by hand. To request an application form, you have to send a physical letter to: Hawthornden Castle, The International Retreat for Writers, Lasswade, Midlothian, EH18 1EG. Completed application forms (including 2 professional references) are then due to be submitted by the end of each June, for residencies the following year.
  • The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre is in Perth (Australia), and runs a series of residencies for writers at varying levels of experience. These are open for application on an annual basis.
  • Gladstone’s Library is a residential library in Wales (UK), which means that anyone can pay to stay there. But if you’re looking for their writer in residence programme, then this is an annual application process, based around a published book.
  • Heinrich Boell Cottage is on Achill Island in County Mayo (Ireland), and is another one that requires a physical application. The deadline each year is the end of September, for a residency the following year – however, it’s worth noting that I didn’t receive a reply on my application till October the year after I submitted it (in the July), so this system may not be completely foolproof.

But of course, there are hundreds of other places to look for residencies. Good places to start your search might be:

  • ResArtis is an online database of residencies. It allows you to search for residencies with current application opportunities, as well as to filter by artform, accommodation type, and geographical location. Be aware that this website also features residencies where the writer has to pay to attend, so be sure to read all the details before you decide whether to apply.
  • Simliar to ResArtis, the other one to check is TransArtists. This online resource also allows filtered searches, and also features fee-paying residencies alongside ones where the writer doesn’t pay.
  • Arts Council England runs two mailing lists: ArtsJobs and ArtsNews. These sometimes advertise residencies, so it’s worth signing up to them. It’s also worth signing up to the relevant equivalent mailing lists if you’re based in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, too.
  • Sign up to the mailing list of your regional writing organisation. For me, this is New Writing North, who are based in Newcastle. They also share residency opportunities, as well as lots of other useful info.
  • If you want to travel, then periodic checks of the opportunities page on the British Council website aren’t a bad idea, either, as sometimes these include residencies & travel opportunities for individual writers.
  • Another option? Sit down one evening with a couple of hours to spare, and a big glass of wine, and google variations on ‘writing residencies’ or ‘writer in residence opportunities’. Keep a list of anything that comes up, whcih you think might interest you.

If you’re applying for a residency, or you’re off to participate in one, then the best of luck! And in the meantime, here’s my favourite list of ‘residencies’ for you, from the New Yorker:

The New Yorker: Little-Known Writing Residencies