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.

Not true.

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.

How to Make a Living as a Writer: 2020 edition

How to Make Money from Your Novel

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:

Gladstone’s Library

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…

Funding

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!

Workshops:

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:


Publications & Prizes:

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.

(Available from bookshop.org here.)

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.’

You can read the poem, along with an interview about it, here.

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.


What else?

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!

I sit at the old wooden desk in front of the picture window. In front of me, the bogland dips down to where a stream runs down along the side of the lane. At the bottom of it, visible as a bright triangle of blue, is the sea.

This is where I sit and write for two weeks in October, as the world russets and yellows towards autumn.

On the edge of the village of Dugort, on Achill Island, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, is Heinrich Böll Cottage. Once belonging to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Heinrich Böll, the cottage offers fortnightly residencies to writers and artists, providing time and space for you to work.

I arrived at the cottage straight off the back of a month’s residency at Gladstone’s Library in Wales in October 2021. This wasn’t the original plan – originally I was supposed to be staying at the cottage in October 2020, but, for obvious reasons, it had to be postponed. I was a bit nervous about whether it would be too intense, attending two residencies one after another like this. After all, a residency is a wonderful opportunity to focus on the work, but that can lead to it feeling a bit like a creative workout; it needs a bit of normality around it to make the intensity work.

I needn’t have worried. The residencies had such different feels to them, that the contrast worked.

(Though, after 18 months at home, six weeks away did still feel like a lot – less in terms of creative intensity, and more in terms of missing friends. And the cat.)

So what is Heinrich Böll Cottage like?

This is a self-catered residency, but luckily, the kitchen is lovely (and has a dishwasher, which is my favourite time-saver). There’s a supermarket about 15-20 minutes’ drive away, in Achill Sound, or, in the other direction, a convenience store about 10 minutes’ drive. There are also a couple of pubs just a short drive away, which is ideal when you’ve spent the whole day writing and don’t want to cook.

The cottage has two bedrooms (a double and a twin), two studies (with desks and views down towards the sea), as well as a painting studio with plenty of natural light. There’s also an outside utility with washing machine and tumble drier – very useful when you’re on the road for six weeks.

There’s a bus that goes right past the front door, which goes into Achill Sound. But the island is so beautiful to explore that I wouldn’t want to do this residency without a car.

So how did I spend my residency?

Achill Island is stunning. I’d never visited the west of Ireland before, and now that I have, I’m already desperate to go back. Purpling peat bogs, towering mountains, golden sand, azure waters, dramatic sea cliffs, and about a million sheep. All of this meant I was determined to do plenty of exploring while I was there.

Over the course of my two weeks on the island, I developed a kind of routine: writing in the morning, then off exploring in the afternoon. Sometimes (often) I then carried on writing in the evening, or else read, or even just had a super early night. (Turns out, all that work and travel can be kind of draining.)

I say writing, but more specifically, I mean editing.

While I was at Gladstone’s Library, I wrote a second draft of the novel. During the weeks on Achill, I did the bulk of the work on the third draft. A lot of this process involved reading aloud (cue that day when I thought I had Covid because I had such a sore throat) – which was a refreshingly weird experience after spending a month working silently in a library.

I tend to edit by hand, on a big printout of the manuscript, which was perfect for avoiding distractions – especially as the cottage doesn’t have wifi (although there is limited 3G at the cottage). I didn’t quite finish the process of typing up all those edits, but once that’s done, I’m planning to take a couple of weeks’ break from the novel. After all, writing two drafts back-to-back like that (especially on back-to-back residencies) is intensive, and distance is always a good way to get perspective on a book.

What do you get / what’s expected of you in return?

Firstly, it’s worth noting that, while I was there as a writer, the residency is also open to other artists. The studio room, for example, has recently been refurbished and additional windows put in, giving it oodles of natural light and making it a perfect space for painting.

So what do you get on the residency?

The main thing is, of course, two weeks in the beautiful Heinrich Böll Cottage. Unlike other residencies I’ve done, you don’t get meals or transport paid for – which means you’re responsible for making your own way to the cottage.

What I did learn while I was there, was that I also got a small stipend to help cover costs (a total of €350 for the fortnight). This is funded by Mayo County Council and the Arts Council of Ireland. I don’t know whether this is something received by every artist in residence, or only in certain years, or certain art forms, or dependent on funding – it isn’t mentioned on the Heinrich Böll Cottage website, so I wouldn’t like to assure anyone of it, only for people to then be disappointed. For me, I planned the residency without it, and then it was a nice bonus while I was away.

What’s expected in return?

Apparently, during non-Covid times, the Association likes to link you up with a school or local arts group, to run some kind of event or workshop during your stay, as a way of giving back to the community. But while I was there, this part of the residency wasn’t happening.

The main expectation, though, is that you use the time and space to work on your artistic practice, whatever that may be. That’s it: just go to the cottage and create.

How do you apply?

The first thing to be aware of is that the Heinrich Böll residency has a long lead-in time. Admittedly, my experience of this was exacerbated by Covid, but even so, I submitted my application for the residency in July 2018. I also have it on good authority that the applications received in this current round are being considered for 2023, so any applications received in the coming year will be for 2024 consideration. As I said: long lead-in.

Personally, though, I like to plan ahead, so I’m a bit of a fan of a longer lead-in for a residency. (I find those residencies where you only find out if you’re successful a month or so before the start incredibly stressful.)

If this works for you as well, then you apply by snail mail, submitting your application (consisting of a recent sample of your work, a short CV and a letter of interest) to:

John McHugh
Achill Heinrich Böll Association
c/o Abha Teangai
Dooagh
Achill Island
Co Mayo
IRELAND

(Information correct at time of writing, but it’s worth checking the website for any change.)

NB: As with Hawthornden residency, the initial application for Henrich Böll Cottage is by post, but communication thereafter is done by email – or, when it comes to arrangements such as collecting the key to the cottage, by phone.

And that’s it! I hope you’ve found this informative – whether you’re thinking of applying yourself, or just here to nosy at what I was up to for a couple of weeks. And if you do decide to apply: best of luck, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you!

The hush of books. The dusty tingle of being surrounded by other people’s thoughts, other people’s ideas. Ornate wooden beams soaring overhead, as the occasional turned page rustles from across the gallery. In the sacred quiet of the library, I sit at my desk and start to write.

Gladstone’s Library is the UK’s only residential library, meaning that you can book to stay in one of the bedrooms, and eat in the restaurant, Food for Thought, and work in the library while you’re here. (Clergy & members of the Society of Authors gete 20% off!) The library also offers bursaries and scholarships, and runs a writer-in-residence programme – which is how I came to spend a month here, working on the second draft of my novel.

I arrived at Gladstone’s Library on 1 September 2021, sixteen months later than originally planned. The reason, of course, being Covid and the mutiple lockdowns and restrictions. For almost eighteen months, the library was closed, and we kept having to renegotiate the dates of my residency – so that by the time I actually made it here, the library had taken on this strange mythical quality, like a mirage, always two steps further on.

And there is something magical about Gladstone’s Library. Something transformative about the Reading Rooms, about the process of climbing the narrow wooden stairs each day, to sit at my desk in the little alcove above the porch, and immerse myself in the world of my second novel.

My first residency after (more or less) 18 months of being at home:

Compared to a lot of people, I haven’t had it bad the past 18 months. I haven’t had to shield, so I have been able to leave the house for things like food shopping and, more recently, outdoor social gathering. I have a garden and my back door pretty much opens onto the fell, so there’s been plenty of opportunity to get out of the house safely. I’ve even been on a couple of holidays around the UK.

But, like most people, I’ve spent the majority of the past 18 months in my own home, in my own (sometimes failing) routine.

The past few weeks have shocked me out of that. The change of scene, the change of company, the knowledge that I only had a specific amount of time – all of this helped me be far more focused and creative than I would have been at home. Not to mention the fact that having set (or loosely set) mealtimes imposed a useful amount of routine on my days at the library.

It reminded me how much I love residencies, and how much a new environment can – for me – help and encourage the creative process.

So what did I achieve?

I started the residency with a first draft of a second novel.

Everyone approaches the drafting process differently, and for me, first drafts are a mess. I don’t write chronologically. I write scenes which I know have to happen, but with only a vague concept of how they might all fit together. I also have a tendancy to change the characters’ histories and motivations halfway through the writing process, or to decide the ending isn’t going in the direction I originally thought, or – as in this case – to totally change the narrative voice from third person past to first person present.

This means that, when I have a ‘finished first draft’, what I actually have is a jumble of scenes and linkages which may be vaguely novel-shaped, but which also may look a bit more like a rubbish heap. The second draft, then, is where the shape and feel of the book really start to emerge. Where I have to try to make it all make sense.

(This is why, often, I dread the second draft. Suddenly, unlike before, the pressure is on for the words to actually make sense.)

While I was planning for the residency, I’d been thinking of my time away as a six-week block: four weeks at Gladstone’s Library, followed by two weeks on a residency in Ireland. In those six weeks, I thought, I should be able to get the bulk of the way through the second draft of my novel.

I also thought this was a pretty tall order. Bear in mind, the first draft took me eight months to write, and it was a total mess. Still, I would give it a go. Even if I didn’t finish the second draft, I reasoned, I would have enough of it done to carry me across the finish line when I got home.

Cut to three and a half weeks later. I’m in my final week of the Gladstone’s residency, and, after twenty-six days of writing in the library, I’ve finished a second draft.

85,000 words + a heck of a lot of coffees, and somehow, the whole second draft is complete.

I’m someone who tends to write a lot of drafts (I know writers who write more, and writers who write fewer – it really depends on the writer). For me, there’ll probably still be structural changes going on into draft three, and maybe even draft four – so there’s still quite a way to go in terms of finishing the actual book. And that’s before I even send it to my agent, and way before an editor gets to see it.

But it’s a solid start – and the residency has meant that I’m much further on than I ever expected to be at this stage.

The practicalities:

The residency consists of residential stay + meals + library use for a calendar month. The library also offers a £100 per week stipend, plus travel expenses from your UK address. In return, the Writer in Residence gives a talk (mine was part of the library’s annual festival, GladFest), leads a full day masterclass, and writes two blog posts during the course of their stay:

Blog post: Rewriting a Novel in the Theatre of Listening

Where do you sleep?

The library is a beautiful building, with one wing dedicated to the Reading Rooms (where the books & desks & archive collections are), a middle section of offices, and another wing dedicated to living: bedrooms, a lounge, the chapel, and the restaurant.

The Writer in Residence bedroom is a double ensuite room – mine was on the second floor, with a little window that I fell in love with at once, looking out on a tree which was filled with birds and, occasionally, squirrels.

There’s also a desk in case you prefer to work in your room – though beyond the occasional Zoom call, I didn’t use this much, preferring to work in the much more atmospheric Reading Rooms instead.

What about the food?

The Writer in Residence position is fully catered, meaning the library provides three meals a day, plus coffees in between if/when necessary.

Breakfast is continental (I maybe ate my body weight in croissants over the course of the month), with options for either lighter or more hearty meals at lunch and dinner (the steak pie is excellent). To begin with, I was worried the food might get a bit samey, eating from the same menu every night, but luckily they varied it up by adding specials, and having features such as Sunday lunctime roast dinner.

I had to limit myself on the desserts, though. Right at the start of the residency, I made a decision to only allow myself pudding on days where my total wordcount reached the next 10k word marker (so, at 10k words, 20k words, 30k words, etc) – which may have also contributed to my productivity during the month!

The best bits:

The best bit of any residency is the time to write. A chance to turn on the out-of-office and dedicate that brain space to the writing.

But there’s something extra special that happens at Gladstone’s. Whether it’s being surrounded by all the books, or the concentrated quiet of other people working, but there’s a magical focus that happens in the library, where the work just flows.

Apply to be Gladstone’s Library Writer in Residence

Also read: A Few Thoughts On: Writing Residencies

Hey there. It’s been a while. Sorry about that – but then, in some ways, it feels as though it’s been no time at all.

Either way, it feels as though time has been doing some pretty strange things over the last year and a half. Always slowing down and then speeding up, trapped between a race and a limbo. And the truth is that for a large chunk of it, at least for me, it hasn’t felt as though very much has been happening. I get up. I make coffee. I play with the neighbour’s cat. I write. I answer emails. I collapse on the sofa. I watch something or other on Netflix. I nod off. I drag myself to bed.

Like a lot of people, I’ve been struggling a lot this year with a feeling of inertia, a fatigue in the bones. Whether that’s just a result of lockdown, or the uncertainty we’ve all been living through for the past year and a half, who knows. The upshot is that everything seems to take longer, which means less going on, which has not only meant less time to post on here, but also feeling like I have less to post about.

Basically, this is just one long big excuse for my absence.

Cue this summer, when evrything changed. Or rather, when everything happened. It’s as though the days got longer and suddenly everyone came out of hibernation. Suddenly, I have news.

A Few Good Things:

I FINISHED A FIRST DRAFT!

At the beginning of this year, I started working on my second novel.

It’s been slow going. The novel which I started to work on early in 2020 proved to be a false start – partly because of Covid. (When the world turns upside down, different stories can start to matter more, and the stories which you thought drove you before can suddenly feel vaccuous and unimportant.) Luckily, I’d had another idea for a novel last March, and was finally able to start work on it in January.

A few weeks ago, I finished a first draft.

Of course, there’s still a long way to go yet. I’ve let the manuscript sit in a drawer for the past couple of weeks, giving it time to rest before I start work on draft two.

I always think the second draft is the hardest. Draft one is just about writing down your ideas. In draft two, you somehow have to make this colossal bundle of words make sense as a story.

But I don’t want to demean the process of writing that initial draft! It’s still an awful lot of words (70,000 words, to be exact), and this year in particular, that process of pulling a story out of thin air has been hard. I think it’s important to celebrate those achievements at every stage of the writing process.

So: first draft accomplished. Draft two, here I come!

AWARDS & PRIZES

At the end of last year, I posted about the sheer volume of rejections that 2020 brought. And, for the first few months of this year, it looked as though 2021 would follow suit. But then summer happened, and turned things around.

The biggest win (and one I’ve been applying for for years) has been a Northern Writers’ Award.

Northern Writers’ Awards are an annual set of awards, grants and prizes, run by New Writing North. This year, I was lucky enough to win a Debut Poetry Award, to work on my first full-length collection. The award comes in the form of a financial grant, alongside mentoring, which I can’t wait to get started on.

And, speaking of poetry, my poem, ‘Snapshot of My Great Great Great Grandmother, Missouri, 1863’ won the Prole Laureate Competition, judged by Carrie Etter, who said this about the poem:

The winning poem, “Snapshot of My Great Great Great Grandmother, Missouri, 1863,” transfixed me every time I read it. I was entranced by the poem’s deft interweaving of American history, motherhood, and the country’s relationship with guns. The speaker’s consciousness is well conceived, the references to God crucial for our sense of the speaker’s consciousness in that time and place. With expertly interwoven narrative threads, a thoughtful use of line and pacing, and poignant observation, this poem deserves more applause than I alone can give. It’s a remarkable, moving poem.

Carrie Etter, Prole

You can read ‘Snapshot of My Great Great Great Grandmother, Missouri, 1863’ here.

But it hasn’t all been about poetry this summer.

At the end of June, I had a short story shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize. And not only that – it went on to win the Georgia Writers’ House Prize, which comes with a week at the Writers’ House in Tbilisi! Still not sure when I’ll be able to take that one up (thanks, Covid), but I was thrilled to be chosen, and am already very excited for whenever it does happen.

The story, ‘Raise, or How to Break Free of the Ground, or The Lakeland Dialect for Slippery is Slape and to Form it in the Mouth Requires an Act of Falling’, will be published in an anthology later this year.

So that’s my very successful summer! Don’t get me wrong – there are still plenty of ‘thanks but no thanks’ responses. But it’s amazing how much difference it makes when you get a couple of ‘yes pleases’.


ROBIN HOOD

For me, one of the markers of summer is seeing The Three Inch Fools perform. An outdoor theatre company, The Three Inch Fools tour the country every summer, with five actors performing two Shakespeare plays (this year, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Romeo and Juliet).

This year, they toured a second play: Robin Hood. This was a more meta, folky, musical take on the well-known story, and I had great fun writing the lyrics for one of the songs (music by Stephen Hyde), sung by Marion (aka Emily Newsome):


So what else have I been up to?

Alongside all this, there’s been a mix of work & play. I’ve run a number of online writing workshops (which will start up again in October), and been one of the tutors on Northern Writers’ Studio’s inaugural Summer School.

Despite saying I was going to put less energy into submissions & applications this year, I’ve also been submitting work and writing applications. Which, yes, is time consuming. The difference this year is that I’m only applying for things that I actively want to do / would benefit my practcice, rather than just because the money’s good. If I’m going to spend hours and hours on an application with limited chance of success, I at least want it to feel somehow worthy.

As for the ‘play’ side of the summer, after very little over the past year, I’ve actually been away from my own house a few times lately. This started with a trip to the Highlands in June, and continued with a self-made writing retreat (where I wrote around 12,000 words in 5 days), then finished up with 3 days walking the Pendle Witches Walk with my friend Loren (in some very witchy weather). After the year of monotony, it’s been good to remind myself that taking a break, and changing the routine, can be so hugely beneficial for creativiy.

So what’s next?

Well, in many ways, that depends on the outcomes of some of these applications. But in the shorter term, there are a few things I know are in the pipeline:

  • Firstly, I have a couple of residencies in the pipeline, which were postponed from last year: Gladstone’s Library in Wales, and Heinrich Boell Cottage in Ireland. I’m going to be using the time at these to work on redrafting the novel, and hopefully to be able to totally immerse myself in it.
  • I’m also very excited to be going back to the poetry collection, with mentoring courtesy of the Northern Writers’ Award.
  • And, in the autumn, I’ll be back to running the online writing workshops, starting with Writing Weather on Saturday 23 October.

The Summer in Pictures:

My Name is Monster is out in paperback today!

Postponed due to Covid and lockdown number 1 (remember those days??), the paperback of my debut novel is finally out in the world.


After the Sickness has killed off her parents, and the bombs have fallen on the last safe cities, Monster emerges from the Arctic vault which has kept her alive. When she washes up on the coast of Scotland, everyone she knows is dead, and she believes she is alone in an empty world.

Slowly, piece by piece, she begins to rebuild a life. Until, one day, she finds a girl: another survivor, feral, and ready to be taught all that Monster knows. But as the lonely days pass, the lessons the girl learns are not always the ones Monster means to teach…


The book is available from Sam Read bookshop in Grasmere (my lovely local independent), and for anyone who orders the book by the end of launch day, you’ll go into a prize draw to win copies of both of my poetry pamphlets as well!

(You can still buy a copy after that, of course, you just won’t be in the prize draw.)


So how am I celebrating?

Well I’m glad you asked. Tonight I’m having an online launch event AND QUIZ, hosted by Will Smith (not that Will Smith, but the one from Sam Read bookshop).

There’ll be readings & chat, and more importantly, PRIZES provided by my publisher, Canongate.

And the best bit? You can join in, too! It would be lovely to see you there.


Find out more about the novel here.

‘Some years just rattle over from one to the next, with very little sense of change or progression between them. Then again, some years are like fireworks, bursting into a glorious array of sound and light, leaving you dazed and slightly dizzy in their wake.’

These were the opening sentences of my annual round-up at the end of last year, and I was clearly describing 2019 as the latter. What’s also clear is that 2020 has been, in many ways, the former.

I’ve already written quite a lot about the financial and motivational difficulties of 2020, and about the feeling of stagnation this year. So instead, I want this post to be a celebration of what I have achieved. After all, it hasn’t all been sitting on the sofa & coughing, and part of my reason for writing this blog post is to remind myself of that.

So. Here goes.

A Few Good Things:

ANTARCTICA:

I might not have travelled very far over the past nine months, but before lockdown hit, I was barely at home. And one of these trips was the trip I’ve wanted to do more than any other ever since I was about 12, and the item that’s been at the top of every bucket list I’ve ever created. This year, in March, I went to Antarctica.

The trip was everything I hoped it would be and more, from whales to dolphins to penguins (and more penguins) to seals to skuas to shags (not that kind!) to albatross to icebergs to glaciers to historic whaling stations to snow.

Every account of Antarctica that I’ve read talks about how it’s like another world, how it feels like a totally different experience to anywhere else, and I couldn’t agree more. Things that struck me were the total lack of green (it felt like such a shock landing on South Georgia a few days later, where green was in such lush abundance), the silence, the lack of lights, and the absence of aeroplane trails across the sky (something that’s become all too familiar since then, with Covid-19 lockdowns and cancelled flights). It was an unforgettable trip, and one that’s actually whetted my appetite for polar travel more than satiated it.

HAWTHORNDEN RESIDENCY:

Also before lockdown, in January, I went on a writing residency at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. Of the four residencies I had lined up for this year, Hawthornden is the only one I managed to attend (of the others, two have been postponed, and one is awaiting a decision).

Hawthornden is a medieval castle, where you’re fed and given accommodation for a month, and allowed to spend the entire time working on your own writing. I used the month to work on my poetry collection, and to start planning a novel (which I then put on hold during lockdown, but never mind). It was a wonderful month, and felt like an incredible luxury to have all that time to dedicate to my writing. (More about the residency here.)

BELLA:

As well as writing poetry and fiction, this year I’ve also worked on Bella: an immersive digital performance trail around Penrith.

An Eden Arts projct, Bella is a response to the restrictions on live events caused by Covid-19. When the Winter Droving festival couldn’t happen this year, Eden Arts started to look for other ways to keep the festival spirit alive during 2020. One of the solutions was Bella.

Following the trail is fairly simple. There’s a downloadable map, and you simply scan the QR codes on the bright pink signs in the various locations around Penrith. These each take you to a video, as you follow a vlogger, Bella, on the ‘Winter Droving Heritage Trail’. But is it all as simple as it seems? Or is there something else going on? To find out, you’ll need to solve the clues…

actor looking anxious, while a camera films

Publications:

While the paperback publication of My Name is Monster (originally due June 2020) may have been postponed to January 2021, both the German and Italian language editions went ahead, meaning that Mein Name ist Monster and Il mio nome è Mostro are now out in the world. The books were translated by Eva Kemper and Carla Maggiori, and published by S. Fischer Verlage and Liberilibri respectively.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, this year, My Name is Monster was also shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award – an award for debut science fiction novels, run by Blackwells.

I’ve also had a few poems published this year, including ‘My Mother Visits Neodesha‘ in the online poetry journal bath magg, and ‘Ease‘ as part of Write Where We Are Now: an online collection of poems about the pandemic, created by Carol Ann Duffy and the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Later on in the year, I also had a poem, ‘Mouth Game‘, commended in the Troubadour International Poetry Prize.


What else?

This year, I was also asked to be part of the BBC’s Contains Strong Language Poetry Festival, which was broadcast from Cumbria, amid a whole host of ever-changing lockdown restrictions. For the festival, I wrote a commissioned poem inspired by Ruskin’s View in Kirkby Lonsdale. This poem was then used by Queen Elizabeth School (also in Kirkby Lonsdale) on National Poetry Day, as inspiration for students to write their own poems about lockdown – an exercise which turned into a school-wide poetry competition, which I ended up judging. Such a lovely experience to see a poem go on and have a life and a continuation after the writing of it, and to see the wonderful and heart-felt poems that the students went on to produce.

Despite the impossibility of delivering in-person school workshops this year, I have still worked on a couple of schools-based projects. The first is Fellfoot Fables – a Heritage Lottery Funded project, run by the North Pennines AONB Partnership as part of their Fellfoot Forward Scheme – which we ran right back in the first lockdown. The project encouraged children in the Fellfoot area to write about where they lived, and about their experiences of being at home during lockdown – and allowed many of the children to work towards Arts Award Discover as well.

More recently, I’ve been working on a postponed project with Prism Arts, exploring the life and work of Kurt Schwitters. Through a combination of pre-recorded videos, worksheets and video calls, I’ve worked with Yr5 pupils at Distington School, as well as participants from Prism Arts’ Studio Theatre West, towards writing poems about place and belonging, in response to Kurt Schwitters’ own poetic style.

This is also the project that occasioned what I think may have been my peak 2020 moment: filming for a virtual school workshop, and debating whether we needed to social distance from a puppet. Obviously puppets can’t catch Covid, but the puppet was playing a human, and we had to set a good example for the children…

This year I’ve also expanded on my mentoring, and in June, following the heightened conversations around how the publishing industry represents writers of colour (and particularly black writers), and in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, I offered mentoring to two emerging black writers: one poet, and one novelist. These sessions are still ongoing, and it’s been an absolute privilege to read and discuss the work.

And speaking of reading: during a large portion of this year, I’ve found reading much harder than usual, with concentration levels very low, and the urge to pick up my phone and doom-scroll unhealthy and overwhelming. So, when I finally felt like I’d regained my reading mojo, I set myself the challenge of reading 31 novellas during October. I actually finished book number 31 on 1st November, but I’m still counting it. And it was such a great list of books! (NB: affiliate link) I’m planning to write a full blog post about this at some point, about what the experience taught me, so watch this space in the new year.

I also, eventually, managed to write quite a bit, too. In place of my residency at Heinrich Boll Cottage in Ireland, I set myself the challenge of a 14-day virtual residency. And since then, I’ve joined Northern Writers’ Studio’s excellent Friday morning write-in sessions, which force me to spend an hour every Friday morning, doing nothing but focusing on writing, and are such a joyous way to round off the week.

Bookshelf filled with books

A couple of personal things:

Despite the year it’s been, I’ve also had some wonderful personal momens in 2020 – the biggest one being that my Grandma turned 100! Obviously, we weren’t able to have a full-on party for her, but I was delighted that I got to see her on her birthday, before the lockdown restrictions kicked in again. Thinking about the changes that have occurred during the century that she’s been alive still always knocks me back a moment.

I also went to Venice earlier this year, again in the pre-lockdown window back in February, where my oldest friend and I celebrated our 30th birthdays together, with a gondola ride, wandering the beautiful old back streets, and eating an awful lot of food. And, speaking of turning 30, I (almost) completed my 32 before 30 list, as well. I haven’t made another one yet for 40 – but maybe something to think about post-pandemic?


So what next?

Honestly, at this stage, 2021 feels like anything could happen. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have plans. For starters, My Name is Monster is coming out in paperback in January, so I’m planning an online book launch and quiz for that (come along for free, for the chance to win books)!

I’m also launching a programme of online workshops, as well as The Write Chat: an online event series, where I’ll be talking to a writer or writers each month, exploring an aspect of the craft of writing – everything from character to setting to building tension, to a general discussion of what it takes to write a book. Guests already confirmed for these sessions include Rashmi Sirdeshpande, Helen Mort, M W Craven, Yvonne Battle-Felton and Molly Aitken.

There are a couple of other things in the pipeline, too, including a guerrilla poetry project with Kendal Poetry Festival, and a couple of events with other online festivals. I’m also supposed to be attending a residency at Gladstone’s Library in the spring, after it was postponed from 2020, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how the pandemic situation develops.

And beyond that? Well, I have plans for writing, of course. In fact, while 2020 has been lower than anticipated on the level of word count, it’s been huge in terms of ideas.


2020: the year in pictures


Happy New Year – and all the best for you and your writing in 2021!

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been seeing a lot of blog posts and twitter threads where people list their publication achievements for the year. These can be a great way of promoting yourself and your work as a writer (so often, we’re encouraged to keep things under the radar, to ‘be modest’), and also a great motivation to look back on in future, if you’re feeling low about your writing. But it’s important to recognise that, behind the success, there’s usually a whole lot of rejection as well.

Back in 2018, I aimed for 100 submissions a year. This included things like: job applications; commission pitches; applications for grants and funding; competition entries; residency applications; and submissions to journals, anthologies and magazines. I didn’t manage 100 (though that wasn’t really the point). I managed 87.

At the time, I wrote about the experience, and used it to create a proportion of rejections to acceptances. I was trying to prove a point about how much work goes into those few success stories – though what I found was that the more things I submitted, the more successes (or at least partial successes) I achieved.

In 2020, everything has felt a bit different.

A tidy desk with a laptop on it and shelves with notebooks above

For a start, I ended up submitting a lot more applications that I’d expected, as existing work was cancelled or postponed or reduced because of Covid-19. Suddenly, like almost every other freelance artist or writer in the country, I was panicking about where the work was going to come from. And like everyone else, I applied for everything that was going.

And like so many other people, I experienced an onslaught of rejections.

This was probably to be expected. After all, so many organisations and competitions and commission opportunities have been reporting record numbers of applications this year – whether that’s because people are desperate for whatever they can get, or because people who are furloughed from employment have had more time to submit applications for things they’d usually just let slide by. More applicants means a smaller probability of success.

So how did I do this year?

At the time of writing, I’ve submitted 53 things this year. As always, this has been a mix of commission and residency applications, competition entries and submissions to journals, as well as applications for funding.

Of those 53 submissions: 5 were sucessful; 3 were partially successful (either a ‘no’ that led to other things, or a commendation without a prize); 30 were outright rejections; and 15 are things I’m still waiting to hear back from.

So what does that look like proportionally?

pie chart showing results of 2020 submissions, with 57% no, 9% yes, 6% partial, and 28% unknown

As you can see, just over half of this year’s submissions have been rejections. 57%, to be exact. In a year when competition has been higher than ever, that doesn’t look too bad.

But that big yellow segment of unknowns is skewing the data. After all, all of those places I’m still waiting to hear back from could be rejections too. (They could all be acceptances, but proportionally, that’s highly unlikely.)

So what happens if we remove the unknown quantities? What if we only base our graph on the 38 known outcomes?

pie chart showing known results only of submissions made in 2020: 79% no, 13% yes and 8% partial

Suddenly, that grey slice of rejection starts to look a lot more overwhelming. That’s an almost 80% rejection rate. Want to put that in real terms? Imagine spending an entire working week on applications. 4 days of that will yield nothing.

(And yes, I’m aware it doesn’t work like that. I’m aware that some applications take days, while some only take an hour or so. The problem is, you never know which is the one worth spending the time on until the results come back.)

The flip side, of course, is that that’s a 20% success (or partial success) rate. Which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t all that bad. Which has had me asking: why have I felt so down lately about my lack of success? Because I have. I didn’t notice it at first (after all, most of us dealing with things in different ways this year, and adapting to new ways of living and working). But it’s settled on me like a thick fog, and I can’t shake it. It’s a feeling that all writers get (no matter how apparently successful they are): a feeling of ‘what’s the point?’

Don’t get me wrong. I can make myself a coffee, go for a brisk walk on the fell, chat to a few of my writing buddies and remind myself that, yes, there is a point to the writing, and yes, it will all get better. But still, that feeling’s always there at the back of the brain, waiting for when you’re tired and reading the third rejection email of the week. This year, it’s been there a lot.

And looking at the acceptance / rejection pattern by month might help to explain why:

bar chart showing results of 2020 submissions by month, with july onwards overwhelmingly stacked towards rejection

There are those 3 partial acceptances spread out throughout the year. Other than that, you can see that the trend overwhelming leans towards rejection as the year progresses. In fact, it’s been 6 months since I’ve had an outright acceptance for anything.

That’s right. 6 months.

That’s a long time to be continually told no.

So what am I saying with all of this?

Well, what I’m not saying (or what I hope I’m not saying) is that there’s no point submitting for things. I’m a great believer in if at first you don’t succeed, try again. And over the past few years, I’ve had some incredible opportunities that I wouldn’t have even come close to if I hadn’t sent off applications – from residencies to funded research trips to ultimately having a novel and a second poetry pamphlet published.

But I also think I need to take a look at how I approach submissions going forwards. This year – especially the latter half of this year – I’ve spend a huge proportion of my working time on submissions and applications. Probably up to 60%. This was fine, and my choice – but it comes at a cost to my own writing.

Since the summer, I’ve barely written anything. Not nothing, but also not much. It isn’t just the time that all these applications take up. It’s the headspace as well. For many of them (especially applications for things like commissions), you have to imagine an conceive and plan out an entire project. That’s a lot of work, and a lot of creative energy that isn’t going on my own writing.

If your application is successful, then the work pays off, because you’ve already done all that planning, which allows you to hit the ground running. If you’re not successful, then often it’s wasted energy, because so many of those commission projects are non-transferable, either because they’re site- or theme-specific.

So what am I going to do about it?

It isn’t enough to say, ‘well I’ll just write and not apply for anything then’, because unfortunately there are bills to pay, and spending more time at home means more heating and lighting and all the rest of it. And also because I still want to get my work out there, which means journals and anthologies and competitions. But, in 2021, I’m going to think more strategically about which applications I devote any energy to.

A pen resting on a printed manuscript, and beyond it, a cat sitting patiently on a path

OK. So what’s my strategy for 2021?

Mostly, I’m making this up as I go along. The Covid-19 situation is changing so fast and so often, that whatever I decide now, I may have to change my mind about in a couple of months anyway.

But for now, here’s my basic battle plan for 2021:

  • Keep submitting to journals, anthologies & competitions. This is one area of submissions that doesn’t take up too much time (although it can be financially costly). Mostly, what I end up submitting is work that I have anyway. Poems I’ve already written. Stories just waiting in a folder. It doesn’t take up too much creative energy to submit them to a journal or a competition. And, unlike more specific commission & residency applications, when they come back with a ‘thanks but no thanks’, you can parcel them up and send them right back out again. I’ve had poems shortlisted and even win major prizes, which have been rejected by multiple places before. Keep writing. Keep sending out. Keep sending out to somewhere new.
  • Focus on my existing paid projects. I’m lucky in that not all of my work is stuff that I have to apply for. Well, I say lucky. Like most things in the arts world, it’s a mixture of luck, privilege and hard work. I’ve spent the past 7 years building up a network of contacts and organisations – people I’ve worked for and with before. This means that sometimes, work just drops into my inbox, either from these organisations or from others that have been recommended to contact me. For 2021, my strategy is not to underestimate the value of work I don’t have to submit an application for.
  • Apply for fewer commissions. This is probably an extension of the point above, but I’m giving it its own bullet point because commissions are by far the applications that take the most time and creative energy to write. They’re also often the least transferrable. This isn’t to say I won’t apply for any commissions at all in 2021. But I want to focus on the ones that allow me to explore my own practice in a way that suits me, and my creative development. In other words, I’m going to be extremely choosy about the commissions I apply for.
  • Focus my applications on funding that allows me to write. Grants to write are probably the holy grail of applications. After all, isn’t that the dream for so many of us? For somone to give us a big pot of money and say ‘go and write for a few months’? This means that these applications are highly competitive. But they do exist (from places like the Arts Council, the Society of Authors, and New Writing North). These are the sorts of applications I intend to focus on: ones that are designed to buy me writing time, rather than lose it.
  • Make my own work. I’m already planning to take things a bit more into my own hands in 2021, running a series of online workshops and in-depth talks about craft with other writers. This still requires a lot of work, but it’s work that I know is leading towards something. Work that I want to do, and which I know will happen – rather than simply throwing an application out into the universe and hoping. It feels constructive. It feels useful. And, hopefully, it’s a way of helping other writers as well.

So that’s it. It’s a strategy that’s specific to me (though if you want to take any thoughts from it, be my guest). I’m aware that not everyone is in the same position, financially or in terms of the work already coming in. And I know not everyone has been eligible for the goverment self-employment grant, which has been a godsend this past year. I know I’m lucky. I can make this choices about where to spend my energy, about which applications to take the time to submit.

The choices I can’t make are which of my applications will be accepted in the new year. All I can do is follow my strategy, write as well and as hard as I can, and keep my fingers crossed that the next 6 months yield more acceptances than the last 6 have done.


Happy writing, and best of luck with everything you apply for in the new year.

The beautifully vibrant paperback of My Name is Monster is nearly here!

On Thursday 7th January, come along for an online evening of books & quizzing, celebrating the paperback of My Name is Monster – hosted by Sam Read Bookseller, Grasmere. Drive away the post-Christmas January blues, by helping to launch the paperback out into the world.

A Monster Launch & Quiz!
Thursday 7th January 2021
7pm
FREE!
Book here.


Inspired by Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein, and shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award, My Name is Monster is Katie Hale’s debut novel – about power, and about the strength and the danger in a mother’s love. The novel centres on a young woman called Monster who believes she is alone in an empty, post-apocalyptic version of Britain. Slowly, piece by piece, she begins to rebuild a life. Until, one day, she finds a girl: another survivor, feral, and ready to be taught all that Monster knows.

Cover of My Name is Monster by Katie Hale

This celebration evening will be hosted by Will Smith, bookseller at Sam Read, Grasmere, and feature a reading from the book – after which I will swap my author hat for my quizmaster’s cap!

There’ll be a definite literary slant to the quiz, which will all be (very loosely) based around My Name is Monster. Don’t worry though – you don’t have to have read the book to answer the quiz questions. (Though if you want to, you can pre-order a signed paperback of My Name is Monster from Sam Read here.)

You can play along in your bubble at home, or if you want to join forces with friends in different households, you can communicate with each other through private chat to form a team.

Prizes include signed copies of the newly released paperback of My Name is Monster, along with other mystery goodies!


Katie Hale is a poet & novelist, based in Cumbria. Her debut novel, My Name is Monster, has been translated into multiple languages, and she is the author of two poetry pamphlets: Breaking the Surface and Assembly Instructions, which won the Munster Chapbook Prize. She is a former MacDowell Fellow and has completed a number of international residencies. She has also featured on national television and radio, including programmes such as Radio 4’s Open Book and Front Row, and has created commissioned work for the National Trust, the Barbican Centre, and the BBC Contains Strong Language poetry festival.

Will Smith is a bookseller at Grasmere’s Sam Read’s: a small independent bookshop founded in 1887. He is also an academic whose book reviews feature monthly in Cumbria Life and on BBC Radio Cumbria, a lecturer in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling, and a Canadian literature expert. In 2019 he co-edited a poetry anthology, Companions of Nature, and Lakeland Book Award-winning Grasmere: A History in 55½ Buildings. He was a judge of the 2019 Costa Book Awards.

Pre-order your signed copy of My Name is Monster here.

Here we are again. Back in lockdown. Back to negotiating how to translate various aspects of our lives to a digital platform. Back to thinking about how writing works in isolation.

For some of us, of course, we never really stopped the first time around – those who were actively shielding, but also those who just didn’t go anywhere unless it was completely necessary.

But for some, the past few months have been slightly different, with a few more freedoms, and hopefully some opportunity to fill up that well of inspiration a little bit, ahead of Lockdown: The Sequel – which, personally, I’m planning to spend in front of the fire with a hot chocolate & a big stack of books.

But, alongside the uncertainty of lockdown, October was also a month of celebration on a personal level for me. No, I’m not just talking about Halloween (though of course, that’s always a highlight). I’m talking about the fact that my Grandma turned 100!

It’s not every day that you get to celebrate someone you know living for a full century, so forgive me while I take a moment to share this with you. My Grandma has been my inspiration ever since I was a child, and I’ve loved getting to share the past 30 of her 100 years with her. Obviously things were a little different to how we’d have liked, because of Covid restrictions, but we still managed a wonderful day, and she still received her card from the queen!

woman blowing out candles in the shape of '100' on a birthday cake

And what about in my writing life? What’s been happening in the month pre-lockdown?


A Few Good Things:

Launch: Online Writing Workshops

Let’s be honest: the world isn’t getting back to normal any time soon. So, with that in mind, I’m planning ahead, and thinking about ways to encourage creativity into 2021.

So, throughout 2021, I’m running a series of online creative writing workshops, each focusing on a different asect of the craft of writing:

In each workshop, we will look at some examples of wonderful writing from existing works of fiction, and follow them up by doing some writing of our own. I’ll also leave you with a take-home writing prompt, so you can keep on being inspired in your own time.

Workshop cost: £20 (For each workshop, there are 2 free places available for those who would otherwise be unable to attend. Drop me a message if you would like one of these places.) Workshops run using Zoom & capped at 14 attendees, so it won’t feel too crowded.

I’m really excited to get underway with these workshops. I’ve had a few workshops from 2020 cancelled (or ‘postponed indefinitely’), so it’ll be amazing to return to running workshops more regularly.

Image of a bright pink street sign with the words 'The Droving Trail' at the top, and underneath it a QR code with the letter B inside, and a silhouette of a sheep beside it. In the bottom corner of the sign, the number 1.

Bella

You know those projects that come along that you just can’t say no to? That remind you of the fun and experimentation of the job of writing? Bella is absolutely one of those projects.

Bella is an interactive digital trail in response to Penrith Winter Droving (a rural festival of masks & fire & lanterns, run annually by Eden Arts). Obviously, the Winter Droving couldn’t happen this year because of Covid-19, so Eden Arts came up with a number of alternative projects to keep the Winter Droving spirit alive. One of these projects was Bella.

I had a phone call about the project back at the start of September, and since then it’s all been a bit of a whirlwind getting it up and ready. There are 10 episodes, written by yours truly, each in the form of a short video by ‘Bella’ (played by Natalie Bowers), a vlogger following the Winter Droving Trail. If you follow the trail along with her, it takes you on a journey around Penrith, to see if you can solve the mystery along the way. There are 10 clues to find…

Fellfoot Fables: Dark Skies Project

During Lockdown Number 1, I worked with North Pennines AONB Partnership on their Fellfoot Forward Project, encouraging children & adults to get out into the landscape as much as was safe and possible, and to write about their relationship with where they live – particularly in relation to lockdown, and their experience of place during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, in celebration of the North Pennines Stargazing Week 2020, we’ve produced this short film to help you use the North Pennines dark skies as inspiration for your writing and poetry. (NB: you don’t have to be in the Pennines to do this – you can look up at the sky from wherever you are and write a poem about it!)


The Month in Books:

October was a big month for reading, as I set myself the challenge of reading a novella or short novel a day for the entire month. That’s 31 books in 31 days. Which is a lot of reading.

I’m planning to write a whole separate blog post about this, so I won’t go into too much detail here. But if you want to check out what I read, you can see the list in this twitter thread:


The Month in Pictures:

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the imbalance in how the publishing industry represents writers of colour, and particularly black writers. I’ve been following the #publishingpaidme hashtag, which worked to highlight the discrepancy between advances received by white authors, and advances received by writers of colour. I’ve followed the call from the Black Writers’ Guild, to redress the systemic racism at play in the UK publishing industry. I strongly believe that publishing as an industry needs to up its game when it comes to how it relates (or fails to relate) to so-called minority writers, whether that be writers of colour, disabled or neurodivergent writers, LGBTQ+ writers, writers from economically marginalised backgrounds, or other writers who experience barriers to traditional publishing.

And I’ve thought: it’s all very well agreeing with all of this on twitter, but what can I actually do?

Well, one thing I can do is to offer mentoring to 2 emerging black writers living in the UK: one emerging poet, and one emerging novelist.

The mentoring will consist of four 1-hour sessions (on Skype), between the beginning of August and the end of 2020. We’ll agree an individual plan and a shedule before we start, but for each session, I can offer feedback on up to 3000 words of prose or 150 lines of poetry (sent in advance).

I’m looking for applications from black writers who are:

  • UK-based
  • Over 18
  • An emerging novelist or poet
  • Without an agent
  • Yet to publish a single-authored book / pamphlet

A bit about me:

I’m a poet and novelist, based in Cumbria. Over my career so far, I’ve benefited hugely from being mentored myself, both through the Wordsworth Trust (as a poet), and through Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme (as a novelist).

My debut novel, My Name is Monster, is a literary post-apocalyptic female retelling of Robinson Crusoe, published by Canongate. My poetry draws on the lyric tradition, and is published by flipped eye and Southword. I’m interested in heritage, myth and fairytale, feminism & the female monster, versioning, the rural, and travel. That isn’t to say you have to be interested in those things in order to apply, and that isn’t necessarily a list of what I’m looking for – it’s just to give you a general sense of my own work.

If you’re trying to decide whether I would be a good fit to mentor you, feel free to have a read of an extract of My Name is Monster, or to read some of my poetry.

How to apply:

Please apply using the contact form at the bottom of the page, letting me know:

  • Your name & email address
  • Whether you’re applying as a poet or a novelist
  • Tell me about you (max 100 words)
  • For novelists, tell me about your book (max 100 words), OR
  • For poets, tell me about your poetry / themes / poetic style (100 words)

Deadline: Friday 17th July

UPDATED DEADLINE: SUNDAY 19TH JULY

I’ll aim to get back in touch with everyone who applies by the end of July, to let you know whether you’ve been successful.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you, and to reading about your work!

 

This week was supposed to see the paperback publication of my debut novel, My Name is Monster – about a woman trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, after the Sickness has killed her parents. Ironically, the paperback publication has had to be postponed because of Coronavirus.

(The paperback publication is now scheduled for January 2021, but don’t worry – you can still buy the hardback! And of course the e-book & audiobook are available from libraries.)

But it got me thinking: it’s amazing how much has changed since the hardback came out a year ago. Obviously, since June 2019 there have been som enormous global changes – perhaps the most obvious one being the current Coronavirus crisis. But I’ve also changed how I think about myself as a writer, and how I approach my creative practice.

Proof pages of My Name is Monster, by Katie Hale

It’s been a while since I quit one of my part-time jobs to focus more fully on my writing practice. Four and a half years, to be precise. Ever since then, I’ve described myself as ‘a writer’. And, ever since I signed my contract with Canongate about two years ago, for the publication of Monster, I’ve actually thought of myself as a writer, too.

Up until that point, I’d been thinking of my writing career in terms of individual progressions: a poem in a poetry journal; a competition win; a pamphlet published; acceptance on a mentoring scheme; getting an agent; finishing the novel; getting an offer of publication. And, even though every published writer I’d spoken to had warned me not to, I saw ‘getting published’ as the pinnacle of achievement. You publish a full-length book, and that somehow makes you a ‘real writer’.

So how did that work out?

In the first instance, I want to say that I was (and still am) hugely pleased with the finished book. I know writers who’ve been in the horrible position of hating their front cover, or opening the final copy to find it littered with typos. I’m lucky, in that Canongate are a superb publisher. I’m so proud of all the work I did with my editor; I love the hardback jacket design (and the paperback design is going to be pretty nice, too); and the publication really did (and still does) feel like a huge achievement.

But.

Once the book was out in the world, and I’d got over the post-publication library talks and festival appearances, and the initial thrill of seeing it in the Waterstones window, I was faced with the question: what next?

It was strange, the realisation that those individual steps kept on going, after publication. Some of those steps are to do with the book itself. For instance, My Name is Monster was shortlisted for a Golden Tentacle at the Kitschies Awards. It earned me a residency at Gladstones Library.

But for the most part, a writer doesn’t have all that much control over how a book is received after it’s out in the world. Instead, all those individual steps you have to take end up being about things that you can control. In other words: future projects.

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

So where am I now?

I signed off on the finished manuscript of My Name is Monster about a year before publication. During that time, there was a lot of proofing and line editing, but also a lot of moving onto something new, which has continued into the year since the book came out.

For the most part, I took a break from fiction. After all, a novel is a big beast to write, and I didn’t want to surface from one just to dive straight back into another. So, while I have been thinking about and planning a second novel, it’s mostly just stuff that’s been going on in my head – something to get down to writing post-lockdown. Meanwhile, I’ve been writing poetry (following on from my two pamphlets, I’m working on a full-length collection), and exploring writing short stories, which may or may not turn into anything.

And what about those individual steps?

I still feel like I’m taking step after step in the right direction. A competition shortlisting here. A journal publication there. And (before lockdown hit) a couple of writing residencies that allowed me to ignore admin work for a while and dedicate serious time to writing.

But mostly, those individual steps just involve sitting down at the desk every morning and writing: hitting a word count and working my way, ever so gradually, towards another book.

*

My Name is Monster will be published in paperback in January 2021, along with a swanky new version of the cover. Till then, here’s a video of me reading from the opening of the book. Enjoy!

My Name is Monster – opening from Katie Hale on Vimeo.

A post about anxiety, cultivating creativity, and online resources for writers.

Three weeks ago, after passing through three major international airports in my attempt to get home from the Falkland Islands, I went into two-week self-isolation. Except that it doesn’t feel like three weeks ago. It feels like two days – and also about seventeen years. I don’t know whether anyone else has experienced this, but for me, time seems to be in limbo. The days just roll over one another, and it would be far too easy to spend them all staring into space, or at a screen, or at the birds in the garden. (NB: I have definitely done all of these things since lockdown began.)

Let’s start by saying that this wasn’t the post I was expecting to write for today. The one I’d scheduled was an update on how travelling for multiple consecutive weeks was affecting my writing process.

Obviously, I’m not currently travelling. I got about halfway through my epic trip (Argentina, Uruguay, Antarctica, South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, and Australia), before coming home. In fact, I was en route to Melbourne when Australia closed its borders, and I had to spend a frantic hour at Dubai airport, trying to persuade the Emirates airline staff to put me on a flight back to Manchester instead. (Luckily, they did – and when the lovely woman at the desk handed me the ticket, I actually burst into tears. But that’s another story.)

Aeroplane wing over the Falkland Islands

So now what?

Right now I should have been in the middle of a 3-week writing residency at the KSP Writers’ Centre, in Perth. Part of me wanted to host my own in-isolation residency at home. After all – I don’t have to go anywhere, and isn’t that one of the joys of a writing residency? But I’ve also been finding it difficult to focus over the past few weeks. Which begs the question:

Should I be using this lockdown time to write?

I’ve seen countless posts about this on twitter. People saying that the lockdown represents ‘ideal writing conditions’. People saying how much writing they’ve managed to accomplish now they’re not having to go to work. People commenting how they’re finding it impossible to write right now. People despairing that suddenly stories hold no interest for them any more, as how can fiction compete with our current reality? People clinging to stories and poems as lifelines.

In short: there is no right answer.

There was an excellent Anne Enright quotation doing the rounds on twitter a while ago, from an article in the Guardian:

‘Honestly, there is a lot to be said for tooling about all day, looking up recipes and not making them, not bothering to paint the living room and failing to write a novel. In the middle of the messy non-event called your mid-afternoon, you might get something – a thought to jot down, a good paragraph, a piece of gossip to text a pal. Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you. Try not to confuse the urge to get something done with the idea that you are useless. Try not to confuse the urge to contact someone with the thought that you are unloved. Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine.’

So let’s talk about solitude.

As writers, we often crave solitude. That time away from work colleagues or family or friends, where we can just be on our own, inside our own head, to write. Some of us travel hundreds of miles to go on residencies, just to get some of this solitude. Some of us usually find it in a public park, or in the middle of a crowded café.

Because solitude isn’t necessarily the same as being alone.

As Anne Enright says: ‘Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you.’ And solitude is a kind of boredom. It’s a state of mind that writers can spend years learning to cultivate. It isn’t just sitting on your own at a desk, with nothing else you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a way of shutting off the critical part of your brain, to make room for the creative bit. It’s sitting with the door open and waiting for the ideas and thoughts and words to arrive. It’s an active and a passive state at the same time. Solitude, the way a writer needs solitude, is a way of being alone with the universe.

And it’s difficult to make room for creativity, when your head is full of external anxious thoughts.

Notebook and laptop on a kitchen table from above, with coffee, breakfast and a candle

Let’s talk about anxiety.

I mean anxiety with both a capital and a lower case ‘a’. Because these times are tough. All the clichés that have arisen over the past few weeks are true: this isn’t normal; these are difficult times; the world is upside down; it’s too big to process; we just have to get through this day by day.

There are times, sitting at my kitchen table with my notebook open and a pen in my hand, that I could almost imagine there’s nothing untoward happening outside my own four walls. There are days when I’m bored – in both the positive, creative, Anne Enright sense of the word, and in the listless, sour sense of it. And yes, I cultivate both of these. Because if I didn’t, I couldn’t cope.

At the time of writing this, the UK death toll has almost reached 10,000. And that’s just the figures for hospitals – it doesn’t include all those people who’ve died at home or in care homes. Hospital staff and other key workers are going without adequate PPE. There are thousands of people who won’t get proper funerals. Who are dying alone, their loved ones having to say goodbye over skype. There are nurses sitting with dying patients, holding their hands, to stop them from dying alone.

When I think about all of this, I freeze up. It’s too much for my brain to handle. Possible, reading this, you’ll see this as me turning a blind eye. As choosing to live in my own (honestly quite beautiful) bubble, of sunny Cumbrian walks, and baking banana bread, and reading books. And yes, of course I choose that. When choosing between a meadow and the abyss, who on earth would elect to fall?

That doesn’t mean I don’t care. But I know what anxiety feels like (big and small ‘a’). I recognise those heart palpitations. The sweats. The sick feeling. The vertigo from looking over the cliff-edge inside your brain. Even writing this post has got me feeling all of that, feeling dangerously close to the edge. And if I let myself get stuck in those thought-cycles, I’ll be no use to anyone.

So I steer myself away. I try to read, when I can focus on it. On better days, I try to write. I bake. I make soup. I get in shopping for my parents. And, sometimes, I try to avoid looking at the news.

Freshly baked carrot cake muffins on a cooling rack

So how is my writing going with all of this?

Of my first three weeks in isolation, I spent the first one writing absolutely nothing. I figured that was fair enough. I’d just come back from a massive round-the-world (or half-way-round-the-world-and-then-suddenly-home) trip. I was still jet-lagged, not to mention just generally tired. I needed time to adjust to what I keep seeing referred to as ‘the new normal’. And, to top it all, I had an exhausting cough that may or may not have been coronavirus. I gave myself the week off.

During week two, I also wrote very little – though I did find a way to ease myself back into creativity: Tania Hershman’s Arvon Short Story Challenge. The challenge consisted of five daily prompts, each designed to help you into writing a short story. What worked for me was that the prompts themselves only took about 20 minutes each, so I could do them without feeling like there was great pressure to spend hours in a state of focus, or to write something meaningful. It was like doing physiotherapy exercises after an injury, working a muscle back into life.

I did write a short story from the exercises. It took me two weeks, rather than one, but that doesn’t matter. The point is, the exercises opened a door.

That doesn’t mean that everything’s back to normal. There’s still that difficulty in focusing, and I’m still tired a lot of the time. (I don’t know if this is a hangover from the maybe-coronavirus cough, or just a reflection on my constant state of low-level anxiety.) But I’m managing to think about writing, and to write little bits. I’ve made a promise to myself that, during the weekdays of what would have been my Perth residency, I’m going to write something every day. It doesn’t have to be a lot. One day last week, I wrote 200 words, and I’m counting that as a success. The important thing for me right now isn’t volume – it’s keeping the engine running.

I’m currently working at between half and two thirds of my usual capacity – less for the creative stuff, but more for the practical and administrative side of things, which tends to require less head-space. Also, apart from writing this post, I took a full two-day weekend this week, and honestly it’s made a world of difference. I hardly ever do this, and this weekend has made me realise that I ought to do it more often. After all, writing is work, and it isn’t good for us to work 24/7.

So all in all, I’m doing surprisingly ok. Blips here and there of course, but getting through each day as it comes, and managing to think creatively, which is what I hold onto.

Notebook, pen, laptop and coffee mug on a kitchen table

A few online resources:

Stay safe & well – and happy writing, or not-writing, or whatever you choose to do with these lockdown days.

Kitchen table, with notebooks, pens, coffee and a vase of flowers. In the background, theatre seats and the bottom of a set of wall-mounted bookshelves.

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!

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 down 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