I write this not quite sitting in the kitchen sink, but at least close enough to it to see the huge pile of dishes I ought to be doing. And the vase of wilting flowers I really ought to have taken out to the compost heap by now. And the cobweb on the underside of the cabinets which I’m certain wasn’t there yesterday but which has erupted into a vast glittering net, seemingly overnight. I can see all these things, but instead of dealing with them, I’m sitting at the table, watching the cursor flicker on the screen.

It’s been like this quite a lot over the past few months: trying to work, while feeling like I’m balancing on a mountain of incomplete household chores and unsent emails and unanswered texts, knowing that at any second there could be an avalanche. This might sound overly dramatic, but I haven’t really stopped since April. Not even when I had Covid (round 3) in June.

And when I say I haven’t stopped, I mean I haven’t stopped.

I’ve already written about my incredibly full-on April and May (with a commission, two residencies and deadlines for both my poetry collection and my second novel). Well, straight off the back of that, I went into Kendal Poetry Festival, for which I was Festival Coordinator – as well as fulfilling my usual role of Guerilla Poetry Officer: creating displays around town, and curating the Festival Survival Kits to send out to ticket-holders. This was followed by another deadline for the poetry collection and another deadline for the novel (seriously, whoever it was who said that ‘writing is rewriting’ was not wrong), as well as a return to all the regular admin which I’d naturally let slide in preparing for the festival.

Cut to the end of August, and I feel ready to collapse on the sofa and do nothing but cuddle the cat for days on end.

Which is sort of what I’ve been doing for the past few days – but with less relaxation and more ‘ticking items off my to-do list’. Because after four months of pretty much non-stop high-level stressful work, there are two things I know:

  1. I desperately need a rest, and
  2. I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten how to do that.

Ever since I was a teenager studying for exams (and possibly even before that), I’ve only had two responses to intense periods of work: either collapse completely and come down with a terrible post-stress flu, or just carry right on working, but for slightly lower stakes. Since in this instance I’d already done the collapse-and-be-ill part (although admittedly without being able to actually collapse, because we had a festival coming up), then I’ve had to go for option b.

Luckily, the work I’ve had to do over the past week or so (and most of the work I have lined up for the rest of September) is of a very different sort. For one thing, there are fewer deadlines – and those deadlines there are are much less pressing. For another, most of my work this month is pretty solitary, which always takes the pressure off, because it means not having to fit around anyone’s schedule but my own, which of course reduces those pressing deadlines even more. And lastly because roughly half of this month’s work is reading.

That’s right. For multiple hours over the next month, I actually do get to lounge around on the sofa, cuddling the cat and reading a book. (Side note: for years, one of my closest friends thought this actually was what I did all day for my job – something she didn’t admit to me until much later – so she was delighted this week to finally have been proven correct.) This is because I’m one of the judges for this year’s Gladstone’s Library Writers in Residence programme, and so have a shortlist of fourteen books to read before our judges’ meeting at the start of October.

To some people, I know, reading fourteen books in a month wouldn’t feel like much. (I know plenty of people have been doing the Sealey Challenge during August: reading a poetry collection or pamphlet every day throughout the month.) But for the bulk of 2022, I haven’t really been reading much. Put it down to all those high-pressure deadlines I was telling you about.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one of these people who never reads because it somehow ‘tampers with their own individual creativity’, because as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t read or listen to books or consume them in some way, then why on earth would you want to write them? And how do you know you want to write them, because you never experience the thing you’re trying to create? But my reading habits do tend to peak and trough – largely because I still tend to think of reading as a delicious luxury, rather than as an integral part of my creative practice, and as such, it tends to get pushed to the bottom (and then off the bottom) of my list. So when things get super busy in the way they have done over the past few months, my reading rate tends to drop, and my TBR pile tends to grow.

This attitude of mine is something I’m trying to fix – and part of the reason I said yes to judging for Gladstone’s Library. (Another reason being because I absolutely love the library, and had the most amazing residency there last year.) And as it turns out, I was right to say yes. I’ve already read some great books (four out of the total fourteen), some of which I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise – and it’s definitely helped me to find that balance between continuing to work hard and also not working myself into the ground. I think (I hope) it’s also helping me to develop a better reading habit. More consistent, and less all-or-nothing. But I guess time will tell on that one.

One thing that has surprised me, though, is that I think I’ve been more productive as a result.

What, I hear you cry – even though you’re spending multiple hours a day doing nothing but reading? (Or maybe you don’t cry this. Maybe you stopped reading ages ago.)

Why yes. Even though I’m spending multiple hours a day reading.

You see, almost every day, I reach a point where my brain stops working, but my to-do list tells me I need to keep going. Often this point arrives in the middle of the afternoon, but not always. Usually, I make myself a tea or coffee, grab a snack, and force myself to keep working at the laptop. Usually spending about an hour answering a single email. It’s frustrating, and not efficient. But what I’ve been doing whenever this has happened over the past week, is retreating to the sofa (and the cat), and picking up a book. It isn’t that the books don’t require me to use my brain (some of them really do) but it’s a different type of thinking. It’s something I can do even when the email-answering and grant-writing and workshop-planning fails me. I sit and read for an hour or two, and then go back to whatever task I was supposed to be completing in the first place. And you know what? It works. The jobs get ticked off the list, and I feel a million times better for it.

What’s more, I even feel more like writing – which is why today, full of that back-to-school feeling on September 1st, I started a new project. What was that project? Well, you’ll just have to wait to find out.


A few extra bullet points from the past 3 months:

  • I won a Northern Writers’ Award! In fact, I won the Northern Writers’ Award for Fiction, since it was the only one the judges awarded this year. This means a year of support from New Writing North, plus a whole host of goodies including an Arvon online masterclass and membership of the Society of Authors, plus financial support to continue working on my second novel.
  • Kendal Poetry Festival: as I’ve already mentioned, I had two jobs for the festival this year – Guerrilla Poet and Festival Coordinator – although naturally each of those jobs broke down into about a hundred others. And as much as I supported the train strikes, I really wish they hadn’t chosen the weekend of the festival. Still, the festival was a huge success, with much bigger audiences than we’d hoped for, both in-person and online, and such a joyous atmosphere that it felt a privilege to be a part of.
  • Kirkby Lonsdale Poetry Festival: luckily I didn’t have to do any of the admin for this one, as I was there as a performer rather than in any kind of coordination role. It was a huge success in its debut year, and definitely a festival to watch as it grows in the years to come.

The month in pictures:

The plane lands in the calm between two storms. Where the flash rainfall has left a standing layer of water, the expanse of airport tarmac is a mirror. It glints in the yellow storm-light. When the driver from Writers’ House of Georgia leads me out to the waiting car, the air is warm and heavy with the promise of more rain to come.

In May 2022, I spent 10 days in Tbilisi, working on my poetry collection at the Writers’ House of Georgia. I was awarded the residency after being shortlisted for the 2021 Desperate Literature Prize, and my flights were paid for by the de Groot Foundation – but (due to Covid) it took a while to get the dates in the diary. So by the time I made it out to Tbilisi, I was staring down the barrel of a poetry deadline. In the end, I think this was probably a good thing. Although it left less time for meandering through the narrow streets of the city’s beautiful old town, or for freewriting about whatever came to mind, it did mean that I had focus throughout the residency, and a project to work towards – both of which are things that I’ve found work well for me, when I’m writing away from home. They give me a sense of purpose, and stop me feeling lonely or homesick.

On that first night, the rain finally falls as I’m unpacking my bag, in the art deco opulence of the Steinbeck Room on the top floor of the Writers’ House. It falls with abandon, with thunder across tiled rooftops and lightning forking the sky above Mount Mtatsminda. It leaves me with a strange mixture of intense drama, and a feeling of being able to just sit back and soaking up the moment – a combination which would come to define my stay in Tbilisi.

While I was in Tbilisi, I slept badly. This was nothing to do with the residency, and everything to do with the impending deadline and imminent poetry festival battling for attention in my constantly churning head. But the result was going to bed early, then lying awake for hours, either reading or thinking about what I’d been reading – and then rising late to shower just in time for breakfast.

Luckily, from what I gathered, Tbilisi tends to be a city that rises late as well. Breakfast at the Writers’ House was served 9am-11am, and was usually a leisurely affair, chatting with one or two of the other writers who were staying there.

(Side note: breakfast is the only meal provided at the Writers’ House of Georgia, but it’s incredible!)

Then I would wander downstairs, to write in the dappled shade of the courtyard for a couple of hours.

I think the courtyard was probably my favourite thing about this residency – such a tranquil space, away from the bustle of the city streets, moving in and out of the shade whenever I got too hot or too cold. I had a few Zoom meetings while I was in Georgia, and I made sure to take them in the courtyard, because it was just so beautiful and idyllic.

When hunger finally drove me back upstairs (to my supply of snacks and mini pancakes taken from breakfast), I would get ready to go out for the afternoon. One of the main dilemmas of a residency like this one is how to strike a balance between working and exploring – and it can be particularly difficult when you’re working towards a deadline. I was adamant that I wouldn’t waste the chance of exploring the city, so I determined to do one bit of exploration a day. (The only day I didn’t stick to this was the day we had torrential rain and thunderstorms morning till night, and I decided to play it safe, catch up on writing & admin, and stay dry.)

So how did I spend my afternoons? I walked along Rustaveli Avenue. I wandered through the flea market by the river and read my book in the park. I took the cable car up to the fortress on the hill. I rode the funicular railway for views across the city to the Atlas Mountains. I explored the old town and sat listening to chanting in the city’s oldest church. I went to the museum. I found a courtyard bookshop and people-watched with a coffee. I tried traditional Georgian foods. On Georgian National Independence Day, I walked the length of Rustaveli Avenue stopping to watch the bands and dancers, and shopping at the independent craft stalls. At the end of each day, I collapsed back in my beautiful room at the Writers’ House with a cup of tea and a book.

This is what I mean about the combination between intensity and enjoying the moment. In some ways, the residency sped by – I felt like I’d barely arrived, and already I was on the flight home (and getting stuck at Schiphol Airport for multiple hours, but that’s another story). But in other ways, every day felt like an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of the city – not always doing anything constructive, but often just wandering the streets and drinking coffee and letting myself be.

Which is important, too, as a writer. It’s good to strike that balance between work, and letting your brain do the work while you stare into space.

Which is maybe something I need to keep reminding myself when I’m at home.

(And yes, I met my deadline. Thank you, Writers’ House of Georgia!)


Writers’ House of Georgia Residency in Pictures:

Hey there. It’s been a while. After a sleepy start to the year, things have really picked up over the past three months, and now I’m not sure I’ve ever been busier. In a good way, though. Mostly.

Multiple deadlines have come at once. A couple of different bits of funding came through for different projects. And some pandemic-cancelled things have finally been able to happen.

So what’s been going on over the past few months?

Residencies:

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been on two writing residencies – both of which should have been last year, but were postponed because of the pandemic.

The first was at Moniack Mhor, in the Highlands of Scotland.

At the start of 2021, I was shortlisted for Moniack Mhor’s Jessie Kesson Fellowship. I didn’t get it – but instead, they very kindly offered me a place on one of their retreat weeks, which I was finally able to take them up on in April. I spent the week sitting in the traditional straw bale house (affectionately known as the Hobbit House), drinking coffee, basking in the heat of the log fire, and finishing the next draft of my second novel.

What made this experience even better, was being able to tag it onto the end of a two week holiday – driving Scotland’s North Coast 500, wandering along beautiful white-sand beaches, and wending between snow-capped peaks.

The second residency took me even further afield – to the Writers’ House in Tbilisi, Georgia!

In 2021, one of my short stories was shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize. Desperate Literature have a partnership with the Writers’ House – which means that one of the shortlist wins the Georgia Writers’ House Prize, and is awarded a ten-day residency in Tbilisi!

The residency space was stunning – but even more beautiful was the courtyard at the back, which was filled with trees and greenery, and dozens of little tables where I could sit and write. Which was perfect, because…

Deadlines:

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had two major deadlines: at the end of April, I sent my second novel to my agent; at the end of May, I finished my first poetry collection.

In some ways, having two such massive deadlines back-to-back was stressful (especially with all the other work that’s been going on). In some ways, though, it’s been useful. I actually love editing. I think it’s much more straightforward to take something you already have and, like clay, to mould it into something better. I think it’s much more stressful starting with a blank page – and I also think it takes a different kind of thought process. It’s been useful being able to be in ‘editing mode’ for a while, even if it is for two different projects.

That said, the freelance life is all about juggling projects, right? And it isn’t like I haven’t also been in all those other modes over the past couple of months as well…

Other Projects:

Ragged Edge Audio Adventure:

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with Ragged Edge Productions, on an audio adventure project. The project involved conversations with people from Ewanrigg estate in Maryport, facilitated and recorded by Stefan Escreet – which I then used as inspiration to write the commissioned poem. The poem, sections of audio, and music sung by the community choir were then combined with a walking route around the estate, and community performance along the route.

It was such a lovely project to be a part of – and I can’t wait to share the online version once it’s up and ready.

Kendal Poetry Festival:

This is probably the big one, which I’ve been working on a lot over the past couple of months. As well as being commissioned to create the annual Guerrilla Poetry strand, this year I’m also working as Festival Coordinator, supporting festival directors Kim Moore & Clare Shaw to deliver the festival (which runs 23-26 June, so if you haven’t already got your tickets, get them quick)!


The Month in Pictures:

It only feels like a few days ago that I was sitting down to write my update for January, and yet somehow, here we are again. February might be a couple of days shorter than the other months, but it feels even shorter than that. So how has so much managed to happen in the past four weeks?

Some of that, of course, I mean globally. But some of it I mean personally as well.

A Few Good Things:

Perhaps the most exciting development this month has been getting my agent’s feedback on the manuscript for my second novel.

I like to think I’m fairly hardy in terms of feedback – I’ve been part of enough workshops and writing groups over the years to be well adjusted to hearing people talk about my work. But it can still be incredibly nerve-wracking, waiting to hear whether a piece of writing is working for someone. With something as long as a novel, the time investment is so much more than, say, a poem, that nerve-wracking can quickly become terrifying. What if it falls flat? What if the idea is hopeless, and the conclusion is you have no choice but to scrap it and start over? However much confidence I have in a piece of writing, these thoughts will often flash through my head.

Luckily, the feedback was far more positive than that. In fact, I think it was my favourite kind of feedback: lots of positives, with some good solid editing suggestions to work on in the next draft. So that’s how I’m going to be spending my March: with my head buried in my manuscript, working gradually through my list of edits.

‘Marie first became obsessed with digging things up the week they buried her dad…’

But it isn’t all about work-in-progress. After the slew of successes in January, February has felt much lighter on the publishing front – although I still had a short story published in Joyland.

The story was written (and is largely set) in 2020, during the first lockdown, and features a mystery grey cat who appears as if from nowhere.

And speaking of published work, I’ve also been out and about signing copies of My Name is Monster over the past few weeks. The Abbey Kitchen cafe in Shap has a stack of them, as does Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere (also available online here).

The Month in Books:

Not as many books as last month, thanks to a number of things which have cropped up over the past few weeks – not least having to sit down and re-read my own manuscript, to remind myself what happens in it before I approach the edits. But that saying about quality not quantity definitely rings true, because this month’s reading was excellent. A couple of proofs for books due out later this year, plus the second novel about medieval nuns I’ve read recently.

  • there are more things, by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
  • Matrix, by Lauren Groff
  • The Seawomen, by Chloe Timms

I keep waiting to read a bad book, but so far this year has been superb! Now looking forward to diving back into my TBR pile for March.

The Month in Pictures:

January is always a strange month. Named for Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, gates and doorways: a god with two heads, for looking forwards and looking back. It always feels to me like an in-between month, still emerging from the hibernation of Christmas, not quite in the full swing of the year.

This year, January has felt particularly transient, as I’ve spent a good portion of it self-isolating with Covid. In some ways, this isn’t too different to how I usually spend my January – I rarely have much work at the start of the year, and the weather tends to keep me coccooned on the sofa for most of the month, making it the ideal month to catch up on admin tasks and the ever-higher totter of the to-be-read pile. But Covid is a srange beast, and even on the days I haven’t felt particularly ill with it, it’s left me wiped out, unable to complete more than one or two simple tasks per day.

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily), I’ve been here before. Back in March 2020, after my first close encounter with Covid, I built myself a recovery plan: I split each day into three parts (morning, afternoon, evening), and aimed to accomplish one task in one of those parts, with the other two set aside for relaxing. Gradually, I progressed to two tasks over two parts of the day, and then moved from there back to something more like a normal schedule – although it took a good few months to achieve this.

What that means is that this time around, I know what I’m doing – which is to not overdo it, and to take it slowly. And to hope things get better before too long.

So, other than baking and crocheting and falling asleep on the sofa, what have I been up to this month?

A Few Good Things:

Despite the Covid situation, there have been some definite positives to this month. For starters, I won the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Gulliver Travel Grant! The grant is awarded annually, to assist writers of speculative literature in their research. I’ve been applying for the past few years, so it’s lovely to finally be successful! The grant will fund a trip to Cambridge, to the Scott Polar Research Institute, and the Polar Museum.

I also had a short story longlisted for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize! The story, ‘The Architect‘, was selected as one of 10 to make the longlist, out of almost 1400 entered for the prize. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the announcement of the shortlist next month – but in the meantime, you can read the story here.

And speaking of short stories – another one was accepted by Under the Radar this month – the excellent journal run by Nine Arches Press. The story, ‘In the Soft Grey Tide of the War’, will appear in issue 28, which should already be winging its way out to subscribers’ letterboxes, and which is available from the Nine Arches website.

And last but not least, I also had a poem longlisted for the Bedford Poetry Competition. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the shortlist, but recognition is always something to be proud of, so thank you to the judges!

The Month in Books:

I haven’t read as much as I’d have liked to this month. Blame it on the Covid, which has sapped my concentration like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. That said, I have read some really great books over the past few weeks, and I’m excited to keep working through my TBR pile in the weeks to come.

  • Strangers at Snowfell, by Malcolm Saville
  • The Art of Voice, by Tony Hoagland
  • All the Men I Never Married, by Kim Moore
  • Our Wives Under the Sea, by Julia Armfield
  • The BBC National Short Story Award 2021 anthology
  • Much With Body, by Polly Atkin

The Month in Pictures:

Every year, I write a blog post about how I’ve managed to make a living as a writer that year. Following on from 2020’s support grant-heavy income, this year has been a bit more of a mix: the support grants came to an end, and many of us are still trying to figure out what work looks like in this new half-open world.

At the end of 2020, I had a strategy: focus on my existing work channels to buy myself time to write. In practice, this meant not applying for opportunities (such as commissions or project work) which took days of application-writing. It meant waiting – largely – for work to come to me.

So how did that work out?

2021: A Rejection Round-Up

I said this last year, and I’ll say it again here: I’m lucky. I’ve been working freelance as a writer and facilitator for almost a decade, eight years of that in the same county. So I’ve built up enough contacts and relationships with other artists and organisations, which means that work does, now, just drop into my inbox from time to time. Even this year, when everything’s been a bit topsy-turvy, I’ve had work just arrive. So much, in fact, that I’ve even had to turn some of it down.

Wait, what? I’ve turned down work? Paid work?

Yep, that’s right. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be in this position, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. Even to me now, writing this in the annual financial slump otherwise known as January, it sounds almost unbelievable. But I still think it was the right thing to do – partly because I was so busy, and therefore had to prioritise existing commitments, but also because, this year, I’ve been lucky enough to receive two grants (a Northern Writers’ Award and a Society of Authors Authors Foundation Grant), which buy me time to work on specific projects.

But more about this later on. For now:

What has 2021 looked like for me?

As you can see from the graph, income has been very up and down this year. This isn’t much of a surprise – it generally is.

I had a few decent-sized pieces of online work in the first few months, boosted by the 4th installment of the SEISS Covid grant in April. In May and June, the income took a big dip. Normally, this would be because this is exam time, and so I’m not going into any schools to run workshops – but of course, that hasn’t been happening for the past couple of years anyway.

What I have noticed over the past couple of years, is that when we’ve been in deepest darkest lockdown, there’s been a slow but relatively steady stream of work. It’s when we’re coming out of lockdown, and when there’s uncertainty, that the work all but disappears. It’s still very thin on the ground now, 6 months after the final SEISS grant installment.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – you’ll have till next year’s blog post if you want to hear about this year’s problems.

So. May and June were a bit of a wash-out, but then July and August were successful (thanks partly to SEISS Grant 5 in August), as were October and November. In September, I was Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library, and so the stipend from this was my only income for that month. December is almost always a wash-out.

What does all this mean? Well, it means that I need to think ahead when I’m thinking about my finances. I can’t live month to month, because the next month might be a no-income month, and then I’d be stuffed. It means I can’t always rely on more work coming into the inbox – and it’s this which makes that decision to turn work down so scary.

Kendal Poetry Festival: Festival Survival Kits

So where has my income come from this year?

Last year, I listed four categories:

  1. Funding: money from grants.
  2. Facilitation: both workshop facilitation and facilitation of creative projects. (These go into one category, because project money will often include funding for both the delivery and administration side, lumped together.)
  3. Writing: commissions, royalties, ALCS money, PLR money, prize money – anything that comes from the actual writing of the actual words
  4. Events: panel events, chairing and readings (in person and online and even over the phone).
  5. This year I’ve also reinstated a fifth category: residencies. (This was missing last year, because most residencies were closed for so much of 2020.)

As a reminder, here’s where my income came from in 2020:

As we can see, most of it came from grant-funding – unsurprising, given that we were in the thick of the pandemic, and pretty much all other income dropped away for the bulk of the year.

A small amount came from writing. Plus some from facilitation – mostly from a single project, which involved a combination of administration and remote workshop leading.

Let’s compare that to this year:

In 2021, the biggest block is still funding, but it’s a significantly smaller proportion – 44% rather than 72%. This is partly because the Covid support has now stopped, and partly because of the return of (some) other work. Most of the funding support I did receive came from the Northern Writers’ Awards, and from the Society of Authors, who gave me an Authors’ Foundation grant to work on my novel, to stand in place of the income that still hasn’t returned following the pandemic.

Facilitation is another significant chunk (28%) – largely because I started leading online workshops in 2021, which has gone some way towards returning the balance.

I also earned a significant chunk from writing last year – unusual in a year where I didn’t sell a manuscript, and so didn’t get an advance. (You can read more about how books earn money here.) The bulk of this came from just one source: winning the Palette Poetry Prize. This is why big prizes like this are so competitive – alongside being a massive confidence boost, they can also make such a huge difference to a writer’s income, and buy you a good couple of months of writing time if you’re lucky enough to win.

While I did do a couple of residencies and online events in 2021, these are still predictably low, thanks partly to Covid, and partly to my own circumstances, as it’s now two years since the novel came out. I’m keeping things crossed these aspects of my income have a chance to buck up a bit more in 2022!

So what’s next for 2022?

We’re already a good few weeks into 2022, and I’m starting to try to get a sense for how it’s all going to shape up. At this point, it’s always difficult to tell – even in a year where we’re not battling a global pandemic.

I’ll be honest, mostly, things look pretty lousy. A lot of organisations seem (understandably) unwilling to plan things at the moment. In-person-only events remain inaccessible to so many people, hybrid events require extra planning (all of which could be undone at any time by new restrictions), and there seems to be a reluctance by a lot of people to plan online-only events – led, I think, by the belief that people are fed up with them. (Personally, I don’t get this. I love not having to travel for events, and getting to sit on the sofa with the cat and a bowl of ice cream while I’m watching them. But that’s another story.)

In terms of income, this means 2022 looks pretty thin on the ground.

But all is not lost! I have a couple of sizeable things in the pipeline, which I’m keeping my fingers crossed for – but which I’m not mentioning as I’m trying not to jinx. And as always, you never know what might land in the inbox…


Fancy reading some more? How about:

How To Make a Living as a Writer: 2020 Edition

How To Make a Living as a Writer: 2019 Edition

How To Make a Living as a Writer: 2018 Edition

How To Make Money From Your Novel

How To Make a Living as a Poet (advice from people much better at it than me)

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!