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!

For the past two years, I’ve written about how writers make a living. Or, more specifically, how I’ve managed to keep the wolf from the door during that specific year. This year, I think a lot of us have felt that the wolf has been prowling more keenly than usual. Or more accurately, that a whole pack of wolves has been prowling – one of which has been coronavirus itself, baring its teeth and howling at the sanitised door handles.

Extended wolf metaphor aside, we’ve all experienced difficulties of some kinds this year, in whatever form they’ve presented themselves. It’s only natural that those challenges are reflected in the year’s earnings.

So what has 2020 looked like for me?

As you can see, I earned next to nothing during 6 months of 2020. That’s half the year.

Some of this was a planned period of little-to-no income: I was on a residency at Hawthornden in January, and away in South America and Antarctica during the bulk of February and March. I knew in advance that I’d have barely any income during these months, and I planned my finances accordingly. That’s normally one of the joys of being freelance: that ability to measure out the working year in fits and starts if necessary, rather than spreading the work (and income) evenly across all months.

Of course, what I didn’t account for was everything else 2020 would throw at us. Like a sensible freelancer, I had work lined up for when I returned from my trip – and plenty of it. In fact, I had so much work lined up that I’d made a start on some of the planning bits three months early, before I left. Mistake, as it happens, since a fair bit of what I planned for ended up getting cancelled because of Covid.

In fact, most of my work from this year has ended up being cancelled, or at the very least postponed to 2021, or even 2022 in a couple of cases.

Luckily, there were a few months (like June, where I received two bits of Covid support) that helped me to counteract some of the leaner times.

So where did my income come from this year?

This year, I’ve listed 4 categories:

  1. Funding: money from grants. Specifically, this year, it’s been Covid-19 support grants, both from the government and from the Arts Council.
  2. Facilitation: both workshop facilitation and facilitation of creative projects. I’ve put these into one category because often project money will include funding for both the delivery and administration side, lumped together.
  3. Writing: commissions, royalties, ALCS money.
  4. Events: panel events and readings (in person and online), radio and television appearances.

Unsurprisingly, I haven’t earned that much from events this year. This is partly because fewer events have been taking place this year, but some of it is also to do with where this year has fallen in terms of my own publication. My Name is Monster came out last year, which resulted in my doing a lot of events and appearing at quite a few festivals. The original plan was for the paperback to come out this summer, but because of Covid, it’s been postponed to January 2021. Without a book coming out this year (on top of Covid cancellations), it makes sense that I haven’t been doing all too many events.

The same goes for facilitation. A lot of the venues and organisations where I would normally run workshops haven’t been operating in the same way this year, either because of furloughed staff or lack of visitors – or, in the case of schools, open but (understandably) not to outside visitors.

This isn’t universal, of course, as a few organisations I’ve been working with have found ways of creating workshops that don’t need me to physically travel to a school or community group – either through online forums like Zoom, or by creating video workshops that can be accessed independently. These have been few and far between, but they are happening, which is not only a huge help to freelance artists like me, but means that we can still be providing different and enriching experiences in schools – someething which feels extra important after the challenging year so many children (and teachers) have had.

So what about writing? For someone who describes herself as a writer, 11% might not sound like that much to have made from the actual writing bit of the job. But actually, I’m pretty happy with that. That’s because this year, unlike the past two years, I haven’t received an advance. (An advance on a book is usually split into 3 or 4 chunks, which are paid when various milestones are reached – usually: signing the contract with the publisher; submitting the finished manuscript; hardback publication; and, sometimes, paperback publication.) My Name is Monster is already out in the world, so I’ve already received my advance for that, and I’m still working on the next book, so no contracts signed for that yet. This is what I expected from this year, so I’m ok with that.

Which just leaves grant money.

I won’t lie, this year, grant money has been invaluable. I’m sure I’m not the only writer / artist / freelancer who has felt this, and my heart goes out to those freelancers who haven’t been eligible for the government support. It’s the government support that has allowed me to keep working. Because yes, I have been working. It’s just that most of it hasn’t involved getting paid.

What has work looked like in 2020?

As you can see from the graphs above, there has been some paid work. There have been a couple of commissions, and some digital workshops and facilitation work. There’s been the occasional media appearance. And, of course, there’s been my own writing. (I wrote a blog post about writing in the time of coronavirus, and all the extra challenges that brings, earlier in the year.)

But there’s also been all that other work. The sort that does pay. The sort that takes up time and creative energy, but without the financial reward. This is the sort of work that has felt more abundant this year.

Things like applying for opportunities (which I’ve felt I’ve had to do so much more of this year). Things like answering emails – a lot of which have been about renegotiating work, or about the potential for work that may or may not happen. Things like re-planning existing work in light of a pandemic. I think a lot of people underestimate just how much administration it takes to be a writer – and this year, admin has felt heavier than ever.

Perhaps it’s Parkinson’s Law: the idea that the work always expands to fill the time available to complete it. Perhaps it’s just that, in the absence of a lot of paid work, I’ve realised just how much unpaid work I usually do. But I suspect that this year has produced its own special brand of administration, which has weighed more heavily on the working week. Thank goodness for the grants that have, effectively, paid for me to do some of that unpaid admin this year.

So what happens now?

It’s all very well looking at the year gone by, but a freelancer (writer or otherwise) always needs to be looking towards the future. There always has to be some kind of plan.

The problem is that those Covid support grants (72% of my income in 2020) won’t be around in 2021 – or at least, are looking like they’ll be at a highly reduced rate. And it doesn’t look as though society will be getting ‘back to normal’ any time soon.

I won’t lie, this scares me. It scares me on behalf of myself, but even more so, it scares me on behalf of my industry. I’m talking about the book industry and about the arts industry. After all, they’re pretty connected.

What happens when that support disappears, and we’re all left on massively reduced incomes?

Quite a few organisations are finding ways of working digitally, or are instigating the slow return of in-person events and workshops (though of course, these present their own access issues, and aren’t feasible for everybody). I am seeing an upturn in the amount of work available compared to, say, in the summer. I’m also seeing more bits of work start to drip into my inbox, which is reassuring. It isn’t up to pre-Covid levels, but it’s a start.

I’ve already talked a bit about my strategy for when it comes to submitting applications in 2021. I was mainly talking about this in reference to creative burnout, but it goes for finances as well. The main strategy? Focus on the existing work, and on the things I don’t have to spend days applying for. Prioritise the certainties. Reduce the unpaid administration as much as possible, to buy myself that time to write.

I’m going to say this again, because it’s somthing that hasn’t happened enough during the administrative frenzy of 2020:

Use the existing paid work to buy myself time to write.

And with any luck, I’ll have an income graph that looks slightly different at the end of 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:

Right now, I’m in Ireland. (I’m not, but let’s use our imaginations, shall we?)

It’s October 2020. Coronavirus has never hit, and life on our little globe is carrying on pretty much as expected. Which means that, right now, I’m in County Mayo. Or, more accurately, I’m making my way home from County Mayo, having just spent two weeks staying in Heinrich Böll Cottage on Achill Island. I’ve probably spent a lot of mornings walking along a blustery beach, feeling the salt air whipping against my face, and thinking about my novel. Which, given that this is an alternative 2020 where I the novel didn’t get blocked by the stresses of lockdown, I’m probably part way through a second or even third draft of. In the evenings, I’ve been curling up by the fire and reading voraciously (that part, at least, remains the same), and in this beautiful corner of Ireland, my writing has felt so alive.

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

Step out of this fantasy world for a moment, and it all looks rather different. In the current & difficult freelance climate, I’ve been doing a lot of admin, and submitting a lot of applications which I know in advance are going to have very long odds of me actually getting. I’ve been planning a new project (which is exciting, but also admin-heavy). I’ve had a lot of emails.

All this is great, in that it’s work, and a constant stream of work feels even more vital than usual right now. But it did put paid to my visions of myself writing, reading, and wandering along the beach on Achill Island: that perfect marrying of nature & creativity, with none of the buzzes and pings of normal life getting in the way.

So I decided to create something of a residency for myself at home. Every day that I should have been in residence at Heinrich Böll Cottage, I gave myself a writing exercise. Nothing fancy – just good old material-generating prompts. The sorts of exercises you’d do in a creative writing workshop to get the ideas flowing and push past those nagging internal voices & creative blockages. Some of them I chose from books by other writers, and a couple were exercises of my own.

Did they lead to anything? A couple did. One or two ended up accidentally combining, so I’d written one thing that spanned multiple exercises. A lot of them produced a few pages in my notebook, which I’m pretty sure will just fall by the wayside. But that’s ok. If anything, it’s sort of the point, like warming up for a race. Nobody’s going to give you a medal for stretching your calf muscles, but just try running that marathon if you haven’t.


Looking for some writing prompts to kick-start your own ideas? Click through to the following tweet, to follow the full 2-week thread of them:


So was this series of exercises as good as a residency?

Honest answer: no, absolutely not. Which is nothing to do with the quality of the exercises – as I say, I wrote some things from them which surprised me, and which resulted in me combining things that hadn’t occurred to me before. But it does have everything to do with how I had to fit them into everyday life.

I’ve already mentioned the admin and the emails – but it’s also all the other things, like laundry and housework. The things that become a bit more suspended during a residency.

It turns out that I work best in blocks. (A fortnight of solid admin. A month of writing. 3 days of spring-cleaning the house.) I like the focus that comes from only having to focus on one type of work, rather than having to constantly switch up my way of thinking. I think this is why I’ve found residencies to work so well for me. It’s an opportunity to switch on my out-of-office, and to only focus on one thing. The question now is: how do I do the same during the time of coronavirus, when switching on the out-of-office is less of an option?

I still haven’t quite figured out the answer to this, but I feel as though I’m getting there. Maybe it’s just about shifting priorities, rather than blocking out whole chunks of time. Either way, this fortnight of writing exercises felt like a good way to start.

the writing desk

I’m still not sure how we got here. The leaves are turning, and all the summer plants in my garden have started dying back. There’s a chill in the air when I walk up onto the fell, which itself is paling, losing some of its green summer lustre. The nights are drawing close up against the living room window.

And yet, somehow, I catch myself thinking it’s still March. Possibly because of the occasion sunny days that squeeze in through the rain. More likely because I feel as though I’ve been in stasis for the past six months.

But September, at least, has felt a bit different. Things have started moving again.

I won’t say things are back to normal, because they’re not, and there isn’t the same level of work as there was before lockdown. But there have been a few projects which have started to come together.

Cairngorms

September: A Few Good Things

Contains Strong Language:

Contains Strong Language is the BBC’s poetry festival – this year taking place in Cumbria. Obviously, it was an unusual approach to a festival, made necessary by Covid restrictions. But there was still plenty broadcast over the festival itself, and available online afterwards.

I took part in two events during the festival: one was a panel discussion on Ruskin’s View in Kirkby Lonsdale, and on the commissioned poems that four of us had written about it; and the other was an event called ‘Passing Words’, where a whole range of poets each performed six-minute sets. Both of these were broadcast live online (a strange experience, performing to an auditorium almost entirely devoid of anyone other than the production team), and I think there are plans for the events to be made available again on the website in the coming weeks.

(On top of Contains Strong Languague, there’ve also been a couple of other media bits, too – but more on those in the future! After all, I’ve got to keep some secrets…)

Winter Droving film

A top secret project:

And speaking of things that are under wraps… This month, I’ve been taking a little bit of a break from my own writing projects, and working on something a little more collaborative. Which has included a fair few Zoom chats, and even a couple of socially-distanced-masked-up-in-person meetings, which has felt very weird after so many months of very little work with organisations, and certainly none in person.

I can’t say too much about it just yet (oh how I love a good secret!) but I can say that it involves myth and mystery and vlogging and celebrating local places and not-at-all-made-up historical facts. And I’m hoping to be able to reveal what it is over the next few weeks!

beach

Getting away from it all:

Honestly, I think what gave me the energy to work on this new project was a change of scene. Like a lot of people, I’ve spend the past six months not going anywhere. I don’t just mean the usual been-working-too-hard-and-need-a-holiday. It’s been stranger than that. More intense. For months, I hadn’t been anywhere other than my own house and garden, the Co-op and post office (each only a mile away), and walks on the fell within a few miles of my own front door. I hadn’t even been into town to do a ‘big shop’, or into the other town to go to the dentist or get the car serviced. None of the little changes of scene that are so normal in most of our lives that we don’t even notice them.

It was partly this feeling of micro-institutionalisation that inspired my Ruskin’s View poem for Contains Strong Language. And it was also what made my trip to Scotland a few weeks ago both unnerving, and also one of the most refreshing things I could possible have done. A change of company, scenery (and stunning scenery at that), and long walks almost every day were exactly what I needed. I barely thought about writing once – though I did manage to find a few moments in the peaceful heather-filled garden to sit and read. In many ways, the trip was a creative cleanse. It left me physically shattered, but full of mental energy and ready to get back to writing.

Thin Places

The Month in Books:

Ever since the start of lockdown, I’ve been struggling to focus on reading. That’s continued this month, but with a strange sort of imbalance. At the start of September, I found reading incredibly difficult. I was reading the proof of Kerri ni Dochartaigh’s Thin Places, which is a phenomenally beautiful and heart-breaking and also hopeful book, but I was aware that I was reading slowly. Part of this was the desire to soak up every gorgeously crafted word on the page, but part of it was also due to something else. A worry, perhaps. That Covid-related anxiety that’s been bubbling under the surface for so many of us for the past six months or more.

Then, suddenly, I came back from my trip to Scotland, and it was as though something clicked. I started to read again – first finishing Thin Places, and then roaring through four subsequent books as though my life depended on it. Not only was I reading, but I had a hunger for other books as well. I’d stopped looking listlessly at my to-read pile, seeing it as a chore to be accomplished; suddenly, it was back to being a shelf of mysteries, each one silently begging to be uncovered.

The following list might not be the longest ‘books I’ve read over the course of an entire month’ list (and, with the possible exception of a novel in verse, there are no poetry collections on there at all), but it represents somthing else: a kind of re-birth; or, more accurately, a re-falling-in-love, and for that reason I’m proud of it.

  • Thin Places, by Kerri ni Dochartaigh
  • Run, Rebel, by Manjeet Mann
  • The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Glass Hotel, by Emily St John Mandel
  • English Pastoral, by James Rebanks

And I can’t wait for what the next month of reading is going to bring.

The Month in Pictures:

2020. The year it all went pear-shaped, and the writing world was largely split between those who were struggling to find the headspace to engage with a single word, and those who were churning out chapters like the world was about to end. Which, let’s face it, it still might.

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

I’ve already talked a bit about productivity during lockdown, and about the difference between solitude and isolation. But I want to come back to it: this idea of the writer in a lonely garret, probably wearing fingerless gloves and gnawing on a hunk of stale bread.

What does it mean to write in isolation?

At the end of 2019, I spent a month in Brussels. This was part of a residency organised between Belgian organisation Passa Porta and the National Centre for Writing, based in Norwich. I got to stay in a gorgeous apartment in the city centre, just up the road from the famous Grand-Place, and within spitting distance of Place Sainte-Catherine.

It was a gorgeous place to spend a month, and I had one of the nicest writing rooms I’ve ever experienced (vying for first place only with my little cabin in the woods at MacDowell).

Katie sitting at a desk in a light airy room in a Brussels apartment, with shelves of books behind her

And yet I felt lonely.

At first, I didn’t really notice. I was too wrapped up in reading, writing and editing poetry to pay much attention to the warning signs my body was giving me: insomnia, restlessness, overly vivid dreams that left me feeling like I hadn’t slept at all, shallow breathing, and a craving for salt-rich meals I didn’t have to cook but could just pick at, constantly.

This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced some sort of anxiety, so I knew what these symptoms meant. The trouble was that I just didn’t think I felt anxious. It took me until the end of the third week to work out that was what this was: an anxiety born of loneliness.

By that time, I’d already started going for long walks in Brussels’ many parks. At first, I felt guilty for bunking off from poetry, but the more I did it, the more I made myself acknowledge that this was actually a vital part of my writing process in that city: a way of reconnecting with nature and getting out of my own head – something as important for writing as it is for my own mental health.

It was November, and the trees were a flourish of reds and golds. There were a lot of those cold crisp days covered by endless blue skies, which always feel as though they’re pulled straight out of an autumnal picture book. I started taking a book with me to read on benches. I took poems to edit outside.

An avenue of autumnal trees in a Brussels park

I won’t say that these walks were a cure-all, because they weren’t. I was still lonely. I didn’t realise how lonely till I got back to London and met up with a friend for coffee a couple of hours after getting off the Eurostar; when I saw him in the coffee shop and gave him a hello hug, I realised I was shaking and on the edge of tears at realising I was back with familiar faces. I think it was a precursor to knowing I’d get to see my family the following day.

Since coming home, I’ve learned that I’m not the only person to have experienced this while on that particular residency. US writer Lauren Russel wrote her post-residency open letter about that feeling of aloneness in a foreign place. Olivia Sudjic published Exposure: a long personal essay that begins with her recounting her loneliness while staying in that very apartment in Brussels.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing – it’s just something I wasn’t prepared for. All the previous residencies I’d done had involved a group of people being in residence somewhere together, and suddenly finding yourself on your own in a foreign city – especially one you’re only in temporarily – is a big thing.

(I should mention here that all the staff at Passa Porta were utterly lovely, and very welcoming; they just all had their own jobs to be getting on with. I also met up with a couple of friends while I was in Brussels, and these few occasions were probably the saving grace of my sanity!)

I learned a lot about myself during this residency, and some of the things I learned have helped me over the past six months, as so many of us have had to negotiate a whole new type of isolation.

Isolated writing in the time of coronavirus:

Back near the start of lockdown, I wrote a blog post about how I was struggling to write. There were a number of things going on there (including jet lag and some sort of illness that may or may not have been Covid) – but there was also enforced isolation. At one point, I realised it had been over two months since I’d touched another human being.

And yes, I felt anxious. Of course I did – there was a deadly pandemic sweeping across the globe and everything was turning upside down. Vivid dreams seemed to be affecting people across the country, and there were days when I couldn’t remember whether something had really happened or if I had only dreamed it. I had insomnia. I felt restless. Everything about my body felt arhythmic and reactive. With the anxiety came some of the worst period pains I’d ever experienced.

But unlike in Brussels, it didn’t grind me down. Perhaps it was because what was affecting me was so definitely external, and something everyone was facing across the country, but this time, my anxiety felt distant. As though a separate part of my mind were looking down on my body, subjecting it to scientific observations. It was as though the whole country were sitting an exam, and I was one of the few people who had revised for it.

Laptop on a round blue metal table in a garden shed, looking out over a sunny garden

Two of the first things I did during lockdown, after I’d got over the worst of my maybe-Covid illness, were to clear my writing desk and reorganise my garden shed. (My neighbour calls it a summerhouse, but personally I’m not sure I spent enough money on it for it to have such a fancy name.)

Previously, I’d always worked at my kitchen table, but my kitchen chairs aren’t that comfy for sustained seating, and I’d learned from Brussels that it was important for me to vary up my writing space. Denied the possibility of writing in cafes (my usual go-to when I get fed up of being in one space) or going on any of the residencies I had planned for the rest of 2020, I created four separate writing zones: my kitchen table; my desk; my garden shed / summerhouse; and my sofa.

Like a lot of the rest of the country using their government-allotted exercise time, I went for walks. As in Brussels, I paid attention to the world around me. Gradually, I started to find myself writing.

Brussels also taught me about the need to spend time with friends, and the need to spend time think about things other than writing. Among other things, I’m now part of a regular Zoom quiz group, which I think would have been an amazing thing to have had during my Brussels residency.

As the months have progressed, the lockdown anxiety hasn’t really gone away, but I’ve been able to watch it as though from a distance. I can keep one eye on it, while focusing the rest of my attention on writing.

straight road leading away over the horizon - long grass on either side and a blue sky overhead

A bit like my walks around the park in Brussels, this isn’t to say that any of this is a cure-all. I don’t believe that all you have to do is reorganise your space, take part in a Zoom quiz and go for walks, and then suddenly you’ll have no issues with anxiety, and / or be able to write an entire novel during lockdown. We all have our own challenges, and I can’t even begin to address the work-life balance that has come into play for families working from home.

But for me, building on what I learned through my residency in Brussels, this has worked. At least so far. As for whether it will keep working as the seasons change and we’re threatened by more local lockdowns? Well, I’ll just have to wait and see.

Like a lot of things this year, my regular blog posts have gone out of the window. After all, once I’d written about why I wasn’t really writing very much, what else was there to say?

But since then, things have started to pick up a little bit. I won’t say ‘get back to normal’, because that’s still a very long way off, especially with things like residencies and in-person workshops. But there are definitely more things happening. And a few things have slipped under the radar without my really noticing them.

So what have the past five months looked like for me?

A Few Good Things:

Writing:

To say I haven’t been writing isn’t entirely true – though at the beginning of lockdown, I did find it incredibly difficult to get even just a few words down on paper. But what is true is that my writing practice has changed slightly.

For one thing, the novel I was planning to work on has been put on hold. This is partly because, during lockdown, I haven’t had the brainspace for something as big an sprawling as a novel. There are just too many movable parts, and too many options, so it just wasn’t really working for me. I also ran into the problem of what to do about lockdown within the novel – something I know a lot of writers have been grappling with this year. Do you include lockdown, which probably drastically changes your story? Do you set the book in 2019, which feels weird, because you know that, whatever the ending, the characters are heading towards lockdown? Nothing felt quite right.

So, instead of the novel, I’ve been playing around with some short stories. In a short story, at least, it feels easier to suspend disbelief and forget about coronaviris for a few thousand words; it becomes easier to set them in the non-specific contemporary.

I’ve also been writing a little bit of poetry – although weirdly, a lot of the headspace that I’ve struggled with in terms of novel-writing has also been a struggle in terms of poetry. Something about the lateral way of approaching the world in a poem, which makes it a different process to write. I was lucky enough to have a poem included in Carol Ann Duffy’s Write Where We Are Now project, documenting the lockdown period through poetry.

I was also lucky enough to receive support from the Arts Council’s Emergency Response Fund, which has been a huge help in supporting me over the past six months, when almost all of my income has disappeared.

Bits of a manuscript laid out on a rug

Fellfoot Fables:

I say ‘almost’, because I have still had one project running. Fellfoot Fables was originally planned as a series of in-person schools workshops, engaging children from schools at the foot of the Pennines with their local landscape, and encouraging them to write about it through poetry.

Obviously, the in-person workshops weren’t able to happen, but we did manage to move the project online, so that the workshops could be delivered digitally. We’ve also branched out so that members of the community can get involved, too, and there are a series of video prompts to encourage you to write about your local area. (You don’t have to be in the Pennines area to do this – anyone can take part!)

Get involved in Fellfoot Fables here.

straight road leading away over the horizon - long grass on either side and a blue sky overhead

A lot of spending time outside:

Like a lot of people during lockdown, I’ve been spending more time outdoors – which always sounds counter-intuitive when I say it out loud, but also makes total sense. Very little work on means more time for walks around my local area, or planting potatoes, or whatever. Not being able to go to cafes has led to a lot more picnics. Needing to vary up my writing space, as well as being at home instead of on residencies that have been postponed, has meant spending a lot more time sitting in my garden shed (usually with the neighbour’s cat for company).

Since lockdown began, I’ve also managed to complete Couch to 5k! I hadn’t really run since school, so this has been absolutely huge for me. As well as the exercise, it’s also been a great way to get myself listening to more podcasts and audio books, and to get myself thinking differently about my own writing; what is it about being on the move that changes up our thought processes?

I’m not still doing 5k runs (I had a minor injury almost as soon as I’d completed the Couch to 5k programme – long story, but it stopped me running for a couple of weeks), but I am trying to keep up with the odd 3k-ish run, just to keep myself doing it, and to get myself away from my desk. And honestly, it’s been a game changer!

Looking forward to seeing what September brings…

The Past Five Months in Books:

I’ve been reading less than usual over the past five months. Something about the inability to focus for more than about 15-20 minutes at a time, which has led to a lot more Netflix binging, and a lot fewer books. So, alongside reading books for the first time, I also did a bit of re-reading – somehow I find it easier to concentrate when I already know how a book is going to end, as though the ending is a familiar face calling me to it.

  • The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey
  • Marine Objects and Some Language, by Suzannah V Evans
  • Terrific Mother, by Lorrie Moore
  • Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munroe
  • A Maze of Death, by Philip K Dick
  • Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer
  • The Singing Glacier, by Helen Mort
  • Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Debutante and Other Stories, by Leonora Carrington
  • Dad, Remember You Are Dead, by Jacqueline Saphra
  • All the Harry Potters
  • Rendang, by Will Harris
  • New Hunger, by Ella Duffy
  • Bark, by Lorrie Moore
  • Shine, Darling, by Ella Frears
  • What Happens to Girls, by Jennifer Copley
  • Sabriel, by Garth Nix
  • Lireal, by Garth Nix
  • Abhorsen, by Garth Nix
  • Dancing Girls, by Margaret Atwood
  • Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, by Carly Brown
  • How To Wash A Heart, by Bhanu Kapil
  • Noughts & Crosses, by Malorie Blackman
  • The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien
  • Outsiders: a short story anthology (3 of Cups Press)
  • Ghostly Stories, by Celia Fremlin

The Past Five Months 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 17th Century Guide to Beauty in Virginia

Come,
in the owl-time, in the shy fox-hour, coyotes

still courting the moon, the silver creek
of the Milky Way glinting

above the Rappahannock River
in a fist of flung shillings –

come, dip your face
to the dew, each drop its own

loose change, waiting
to be slipped into the charity box of dawn.

Spend them liberally, soaking your cheeks
in the tears of your not-yet-country –

till, with a great stirring of snuff-dark breath
the sightless eyes of the household

blink awake, and the sun begins again
its daily scouring of the soil beneath tobacco leaves.

All day the plants will stake their hard
aromas to your brow, your unwashed palms.

All day you will catch your tongue
lamenting, reimbursing their murmuring aubade.

*

‘A 17th Century Guide to Beauty in Virginia’ was a finalist in the 2019 PBS/Mslexia Women’s Poetry Competition.

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!

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

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

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

1. Go back to basics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Make characters interact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Start a fire.

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

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

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

writing in cafes - notebooks and coffee

4. Skip back a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

You have two options.

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

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

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5. Skip forward.

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

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

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

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

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

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object

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

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

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

begins its slow
globular journey towards opposing waters:

Pacific – deep, entrenched
and quarrelling fire; Atlantic –

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

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

my mother, newborn and uprooted
to a hospital crib,

her parents’ marriage
gone to tectonic drift

and both her grandmothers warm
colliding fronts from either side.

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

and was granted. A strong
desire phrased badly –

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

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

to undergo
the conflicting tug

of oceans, take heart
from their fierce competitive love.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • residencies
  • radio work
  • grant funding

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

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

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

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

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

The main changes from 2018-2019:

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

Income by Month:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Would I go back?

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

How to apply:

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

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

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

Also read: A Few Thoughts On: Writing Residencies

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

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

Failing at Your Own Game:

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

Or maybe this:

Or even this:

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

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

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

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

I want everyone to stand up.

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

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

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

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

(Ok, sit down now)

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are other reasons too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does success look like to you, personally?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a writing residency?

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

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

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

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

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

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

What’s so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things About: Writing on the Move

What’s not so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

The other issue I want to talk about is loneliness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to survive a writing residency:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to watch out for:

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

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

Shared accommodation:

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

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

Application fees:

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

Fee-paying residencies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, so where can I go?

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

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

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

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

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

The New Yorker: Little-Known Writing Residencies

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. 2019 has been one of those years – summarised as best as I possibly can here, in a mix of words and pictures.

Publications:

Let’s start with the big one, which I’m sure everyone reading this is already well aware of, as I’ve barely shut up about it for the past 12 months: my debut novel, My Name is Monster, which was published by Canongate in June.

From the moment I first saw the proposed cover design for the book, I fell in love with it. Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster of proofreading, launches, and two (yes, two!) dedicated bookshop windows! I did a series of events in some of the amazing bookshops and libraries around Cumbria, and appeared at a bunch of festivals, including Cheltenham, Edinburgh Book Fest, Port Eliot & Borderlines.

Seeing the book in print, and even more seeing it on the shelves in bookshops, has been a phenomenal experience. It still feels strange to know that something that started off as a vague idea somewhere in the recesses of my brain, has been made into an actual physical object, that people can pick up and buy and read and take their own thoughts from. It’s like some strange form of alchemy.

My Name is Monster: available from all good bookshops!

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In the poetry department, 2019 also saw the publication of my second pamphlet, Assembly Instructions.

Assembly Instructions was published in March by Southword, after winning the Munster Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. And, because Southword are based in Cork, I got to travel to Cork Poetry Festival to launch it, and to read from the book at Cork Library.

Read the opening poem from Assembly Instructions here.

Residencies:

This year, I’ve learned that residencies are like buses. You spend years applying for them, and then suddenly all the successful applications come through at once.

My first residency was for the month of February, with an organisation I know well, having run numerous schools workshops for them over the past 5 or 6 years: The Wordsworth Trust, in Grasmere.

While I did, of course, write poetry during the residency, what proved most valuable was the time to read, and the time to experiment with poetic practice. These are the things that so often get pushed to the side, in favour of admin and deadlines, so it was hugely important to have that time to focus on the poetic craft, without the pressure of having to ‘produce’ something.

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

I’m certain this time was instrumental in setting me up for the amount of work I produced during my second residency of the year: MacDowell.

MacDowell Colony is a multi-disciplinary residency, set across an area of woodland in New Hampshire, USA. Each resident gets their own studio, which takes the form of a little house or cabin in the woods, and gets their lunch delivered to them in a little picnic basket. Breakfast & dinner are communal meals in the big house.

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

The main thing I noticed at MacDowell was how much time there was in each day. Having someone else cooking my meals for me freed up way more time than I’d anticipated, and I had possibly the most productive 3 weeks I’ve had all year – rivalled only by my first 3 weeks at Passa Porta.

Passa Porta was my third residency of the year, in Brussels. It was a month-long stay in an apartment in the centre of Brussels, through a partnership between Passa Porta, the National Centre for Writing and the Flemish Literature Fund. It gave me the chance to finish a first (very rough) draft of my poetry collection – and, of course, to eat a lot of waffles!

Each of these 3 residencies had a very different feel, and I learned a lot about myself and about my ways of working by doing them. (I think I may write a blog post about it sometime in the new year. Watch this space!) But in the meantime, I’m just celebrating the opportunity to live and work in such beautiful places, and to meet so many interesting people.

And speaking of beautiful places…

Arts Council Funding:

At the end of 2018, I was lucky enough to be awarded a DYCP (Developing Your Creative Practice) Grant from Arts Council England.

As well as buying me time to write this year, the grant also paid for me to go to the US to research my collection. This was split between 10 days in New York, using the collections at New York Public Library, and around 10 days driving between Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, following the historic route that my ancestors took towards Missouri, and eventually to Kansas.

The opportunity to research the collection in the actual places where so many of the poems are set was incredible. I met some hugely interesting people along the way (and had some conversations that still leave me reeling – some of which have made it into poems), and got to drive through some utterly stunning landscapes. Honestly, I think I’m still processing the trip, and working bits of it into the poems. I’ll probably still be processing it long after the collection is finished.

(Side note: if you’re considering applying for a DYCP grant, go for it! it’s a [relatively] straightforward application, and it’s proved to be invaluable for me.)

Radio:

This year, I’ve also slipped, almost accidentally, into the world of national radio. Specifically: Radio 4.

This started at the end of last year, when I was asked to write & present the Cumbria episode of Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets, for independent production company Made in Manchester. The programme was one in a series, exploring dialect poetry in regions across the country, and its continuing impact today. I was given the Cumbria episode, which I used to explore the intersection between dialect poetry, place and identity – particularly looking at what it means to be an ‘offcomer’ in Cumbria. The programme aired at the start of June, just before My Name is Monster was published.

Then, since My Name is Monster came out, I’ve also been on Radio 4 a couple of times to talk about that. The first was on Open Book, from the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, talking about the book in the context of millennial writers / readers. The second was just a couple of weeks ago, on Front Row, which was based around the 300th anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe, and why we’re still drawn to survival stories. An interesting one to talk about the day after the general election…

And the rest:

2019 has also been not a bad year for prizes – though mostly in the ‘almost, but not quite’ category. Still, given the calibre of some of the competitions, and the high quality & quantity of entries, I’m over the moon to be shortlisted, or even longlisted! This is something I’m a firm believer in: there’s so much poetry & fiction out there, that any positive recognition of a piece of work is something to be hugely proud of, whether it wins the big first prize or not.

This year, those successes have included: being shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Mslexia Poetry Prize, and the Bridport Poetry Prize; coming 3rd in both the Magma Editors’ Prize and the Plough Short Poem Prize; and being longlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Competition. I’ve also had individual poems published in Magma magazine, Under the Radar, and in Mslexia – which I’ve been tryingt to get a poem into for the past decade!

To add to the other poetry, this year I was commissioned by Théâtre Volière to write a series of poems exploring the history of women in and around Gretna. The poems ranged from the more well-known stories of elopements, to the women who worked at the nearby ‘Devil’s Porridge’ munitions factory during the First World War, to those who worked the land and fished in the Solway. The poems were performed at Ye Olde Mitre pub in London in March, along with music from Scottish fiddle-player Lori Watson. They were then performed again in October, at the RADA studio in London, as part of an event launching the anthology of commissioned work.

I also wrote a couple more commissioned poems for the National Trust this year, as part of their Tables Turned project: a three year participation project, which is all about bringing together community groups, young people, historians, curators and artists in projects that deepen understanding, build new partnerships and inspire creativity.

Having written a poem in response to meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was then commissioned to write two more poems, inspired by the work the National Trust had done with other groups: pupils from Keswick School, and members of Glenmore art group and Glenmore creative writing group. These poems were a mix of original work, and words collaged from the work and conversation of participants. The result? Three poems, each then filmed by John Hamlett, which were played as part of the Under Northern Skies exhibition alongside artwork from the groups, at Carlisle Old Fire Station.

So what next?

2020 is already shaping up to be as busy as 2019.

I’ve already got 4 residencies lined up for next year, to continue working on my poetry collection, and to (hopefully) make a start on drafting my second novel: a month at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland; 3 weeks at the Kathrine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Perth, Australia; another month at Gladstone’s Library just over the border into Wales; and 2 weeks at Heinrich Boell Cottage, on Achill Island in Ireland.

To tie in with the Australia residency, I’m also planning an epic trip in the first part of next year (think multiple countries & continents!), during which I’ll turn 30! It doesn’t seem like 5 minutes ago since I was making my ’32 things before 30′ list, so it’ll be good to look back and see which ones I’ve managed to achieve.

And when I get back? There’s always Kendal Poetry Festival to look forward to (I’ll be orchestrating a guerrilla poetry project for that again in 2020), and a bunch of workshops that are already booked into my diary.

Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough – next year will not only see the release of the paperback of My Name is Monster (with a new & equally beautiful cover that I can’t wait to share!), but will also see the book published in German, as Mein Name ist Monster! World domination here we come…

In the meantime, I guess I’ll just continue working on my poetry and my fiction, and sharing the occasional blog post.

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Hope you’ve had a wonderful 2019 – and all the best for the new year. Happy writing!

One of my big poetry achievements this year has been to finally have a poem published in Mslexia – something I’ve been trying to do for around a decade. And, as it happened, I ended up with poems in two consecutive isues! Funny how these things work out.

Here’s my poem, ‘Feathers’, which was submitted for the open callout on the theme of ‘journeys’.

Feathers

I don’t know what I’m trying to say
exactly – only that today, commuting the hangdog
length of the river path, I spied
for the first time this season

a flight of silver breaking from the broad
shoulders of the water:

the metal undercarriage
of an office chair, unheeding
of predators, basking in the knowledge of itself,
its wheels uplifted to the weak sun,
a cursive uncurling towards the sky.

I swear I heard it calling reassurance to its young
on the brambled bank, a sudden circular song.
I swear I heard their ruffled hope reply.

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‘Feathers’ was first published in Mslexia, Issue 83: Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

Whether you want to quit your day job and write full time, or you want to build up your creative practice alongside whatever else you do to pay the bills, it can still be useful to think of writing in the same terms as you would think of building any other career: something with identified goals, barriers, milestones, priorities etc.

Of course, just because you write, it doesn’t mean it has to be your career – whether full-time or otherwise. I want to take a moment here to mention that there are plenty of avlid reasons to write and not make it a career. Write for fun. Write because it helps you process the world. Write because it gives you an excuse to go and hang out with those other writers in the pub once a month. It doesn’t matter. After all, just because someone enjoys playing tennis sometimes, we don’t expect them to be aiming for Wimbledon.

But if you are thinking in terms of career-building, then here are a few of my thoughts on how you might go about it:

My writing life - Katie Hale

First steps:

Before you set out on your career path, there are a few things that you need to think about – at least as far as I’m concerned. There’s a reason why I made this the 4th post in the Writer’s Apprenticeship series, and not the 1st.

The first thing, obviously, is to WRITE, and to make your writing as good as it can possible be. The second is to learn about how the industry works; after all, how can you build a career in an industry you don’t understand? And the third (which may overlap a little with career-building) is to think about who you are and/or who you want to be as a writer.

Of course, you’ll keep on building on all of these things throughout your career. But it’s good to think about them before you fling yourself into the unknown.

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 1: Learning to Write

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 2: Learning the Industry Ropes

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 3: Building a Profile

My writing life - Katie Hale

Set goals and milestones:

What do you want to achieve? It isn’t enough to say, ‘I want to be a writer’. What does that look like for you? What are your priorities?

In the months before My Name is Monster came out, a writer friend asked me: ‘What are you hoping the novel will do for you?’ It was an interesting question – especially coming from the person it came from. I won’t name names, but I will say he’s an international bestseller. So I assumed his bar was set pretty high. Did I want to set mine at the same height, only to set myself up for disappointment? What was it that I was after? Massive sales figures? Literary prizes?

Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are and would be lovely. But I decided a while ago that they aren’t the reason I write. So I said: ‘I want it to do well enough that I can keep writing and publishing work.’

That’s my personal goal: to keep writing, and to keep developing my practice. Anything else is a welcome bonus.

But that doesn’t mean this has to be your goal. If your goal is to write bestselling commercial fiction, then that’s great. The same if you want to write something incredibly niche, which you know will only ever likely have a tiny audience. It doesn’t matter what you want – so long as you know what that is.

Sit down with a pen and paper. Force yourself to write it down.

  • What are you ultimate goals as a writer?
  • What are your priorities in your career?
  • Where do you want to be this time next year? (Warning: be realistic – publishing is a long process, and unless you’ve completed your manuscript and are in the process of signing with a publisher, or at least with an agent, you’re unlikely to have published your novel within the year. The exception, of course, is self-publishing.)
  • Where do you want to be in five years?
  • What about ten?
  • Who do you want to read your books – and how big do you want your audience to be?
  • Are you hoping for a niche group of dedicated readers, or mass market success? (The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s good to know which you’d prioritise.)
  • Most of all: why are you writing? What do you want to gain from it?

Once you’ve figured out what you want, you can start figuring out how to get it.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

Get the skills – or be prepared to outsource:

Your most important skill is always going to be your writing. It is, after all, the main part of your business. If you can’t write well, then the whole ‘being a writer’ thing is pretty much a non-starter.

But writing is only the top line of your CV. If you’re thinking of your writing as a business, then this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. There are multiple aspects to running every business.

The Writer’s Job Description

A Day in the Life…

Before I ended up writing full-time, I worked a number of jobs. Most of the work I’ve done since graduating has been in the field of arts administration, mostly for small locally based arts organisations, with a handful of staff. If you’ve never worked as an administrator for a small arts organisation, then I can tell you that your job description basically ends up being to do a bit of everything. Which makes it an excellent apprenticeship for going freelance. Most of my skills, which help me as a full-time writer, are skills that I picked up as an arts administrator.

I should mention that none of the things listed here are absolutely necessary, and not every writer will need to do the same things in order to succeed. This also isn’t a definitve list. But a lot of them (if not all of them) will be incredibly useful for you as you run the business of being a writer. And the ones that you absolutely can’t do, or don’t want to dedicate the time to learning, when you could be spending that time writing instead? Well, there are plenty of other freelancers out there, who specialise in this sort of thing.

  • Emails
  • Keeping your calendar organised
  • Website creation & maintenance
  • Social media
  • Publicising your books and events, but also for yourself as a writer
  • Public speaking, and the ability to read / talk about your work
  • Organise submissions & applications – including applying for funding

New York - writing in a cafe, Katie Hale
New York

Get connected:

I’ve already talked a bit about this in my post about building a profile as a writer, but I wanted to mention it again here, because I think that the sustainability of a writing career depends in part on how connected you are with other writers and industry professionals.

Connect with people through social media. Connect with people in person. Connect at talks and workshops and festivals. Connect through post-workshop drinks down the pub.

I think I’ve said this before, but I’m a great believer that we are all colleagues, not competitors. If I come across a residency, for example, that I think would really suit a writer I know, I’ll send them the info on it. Even if I’m planning to apply for it myself. If the other writer gets the residency and I don’t? Then well done to them. Clearly the residency either wasn’t right for me anyway, or I wasn’t right for it, or I just wasn’t as good as the other writer and need to up my game. Either way, I’m glad that I writer I know and like and support was able to benefit from the opportunity.

This isn’t entirely selfless. I find that often writers will share opportunities with me in return. And will be more inclined to say yes if I ever need something from them – such as a quote for a book jacket, or a retweet, or whatever. This isn’t why I do it, but it’s an excellent side-effect, and one that helps me to stay connected as a writer. This, I believe, is how it should be: a community of writers supporting one another.

When I was a newbie writer, another writer gave me this advice: Be reliable, and be nice.

Nobody wants to work with somebody who doesn’t turn up when they’re supposed to, or arrives for a workshop unprepared, or never communicates. Similarly, nobody wants to work with somebody unpleasant.

This doesn’t just apply to organisations who might want to invite you back to work with you a second time; it also applies to organisations you’ve never worked with before. The writing world is small, and word gets around. A person or organisation doesn’t have to have worked with you before to know what sort of person you are; they probably just need to ask a friend.

So if you’re making those all-important writerly connections, make sure those connections remember you for the right reasons.

the writing desk - February 2018

Identify your weaknesses:

And then do something about them.

This is a classic business strategy, so it makes sense to apply it to your writing career as well. In fact, it goes all the way back to those school reports, where your teacher noted your ‘areas for improvement’ for the next term (mine was always throwing and catching).

We do this with our writing itself all the time. If you’re a poet who finds line breaks difficult, then spend some time looking at how other poets use line breaks; read essays and books on the poetic line. If you want to get better at character development, we can do it by reading about it, or by looking at examples of character development done well (or badly) by other writers. Ideally, we can do both.

It’s the same with the other aspects of your writing career. What do you find difficult?

Let’s say you identify your weakness as a lack of confidence. (This is pretty common among writers – hence why I chose it as this example.) How are you going to improve your confidence? One way might be to read self-help books about how to appear and/or become more confident. Another might be to look at other writers who are coming across as more confident than you feel, and seeing how you can emulate them.

(Caveat: not every writer who appears confident actually is confident; also, some writers who have bags and bags of confidence are not as good a writers as they might like to believe – the two are often inversely proportional.)

Once you’ve looked at how other writers pull off being confidence, give it a go for yourself. Practise being confident. Go to workshops and open mic nights without apologising for your work. Introduce yourself to people as ‘a writer’. Talk to industry professionals.

Confidence is like a muscle: you have to work if you want to strengthen it.

Katie Hale. Photo - Tom Lloyd

Think financially:

You may not write because you want to earn money. (Honestly, if your main goal is to make big bucks, then this probably isn’t the career for you.) But that doesn’t mean that you can’t think financially about your career. Whether you want to make writing your sole income, or you want to write professionally alongside your other job, you need to value yourself as a professional, with professional skills. This means that you need to expect to be paid professionally for your work.

This isn’t a new idea. (Although for some organisations, the idea of paying professional writers in something other than ‘exposure’ still doesn’t seem to have got through.) But it’s something that’s worth mentioning.

If you value your work, it will help others to value it, too.

It feels counter-productive, but if you work for free, it might seem as though you’re making yourself amenable, but you’re actually harming your professional reputation. You’re effectively saying: ‘my work isn’t worth paying for’. Not to mention, you’re harming the careers of all those other writers who can’t afford to work for free.

Get paid for your work. I repeat: GET PAID FOR YOUR WORK.

The Society of Authors has a guide to visiting schools and libraries, as well as a guide to festivals, and a guide to invoicing.

And, if you’re getting paid, then there’s money going into your business. And if there’s money going in, then maybe there’s room for money to go out. Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself and in your practice – whether that’s about buying yourself a smart outfit for readings, or paying to attend a networking event, or booking a place on a writing course.

And to make things even better: this kind of investment in your career can go on your expenses against income tax. Win win!

How to Make a Living as a Writer

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Those are my thoughts for now on building a career. Like all my blog posts, this isn’t an exhaustive list, because every writer’s circumstances will be different. But hopefully it’s useful – and as always, happy writing.

First things first: this isn’t just a post about social media. I’ve been to enough author events on ‘building your profile as a writer’, which basically consist of some variation on ‘this is how you send a tweet’. And sure, twitter can be useful – but it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all.

Secondly, everything in this post is optional. That’s the joy of being your own boss: you get to decide what’s going to work for you. If you’re super introverted and never want to talk to another human being, well, it’s going to be harder for you, but pick what plays to your strengths. Very few publishers contractually oblige their authors to use social media, for example. After all, you can always tell when someone is only tweeting because they have to, and we all know that it doesn’t work.

(Sorry – I promised this post wasn’t going to be all about social media, didn’t I?)

Anyway, the point is: there’s no single ‘correct’ way to be a writer. Every writer is different – both in their writing and as a person. And so every writer will be able to build their profile in the way that suits them best.

Ok. Caveats aside: one thing you want probably want as a writer is for people to read your work. For this to happen, people have to know about you and your work. In other words, you have to build up a profile – and here are a few ways you can do that:

Write:

Writing will always come first. Sure, we can all talk about writing till we’re blue in the face, and still never actually write a word. After all, while I’m writing this blog post, I’m not working on my second novel, am I? (Shh – don’t tell my agent.)

There’s no point building an audience if there’s nothing for them to read.

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 1: Learning to Write

So write, and get your writing out there – but only when it’s ready. If you send out work before it’s ready, you might as well not send out anything at all. If it’s less than your absolute best, then it isn’t ready. From my own experience: when you first think a piece of work is ready, it rarely is. Stick it in a drawer for a while. Give yourself some distance before coming back to edit it. Show it to trusted readers – a writing group maybe, or a friend who’s also a writer, or at least a good reader of your work. Edit it. Edit it again.

Then, when you’re certain it’s as ready as it can possibly be – then, send it out. Submit work to magazines and journals. Enter competitions. Query editors and / or agents, if you like. Build up your writer’s CV. Start to get your name known – just make sure it’s known for the right reasons!

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 2: Learning the Industry Ropes

But it isn’t just about wordcounts. What you write is also important. It’s part of your identity as a writer. Some people say you should only write what you know. Others say you should write whatever you want to write, or you should write whatever is hardest for you. What do I think? I think you should write about what obsesses you. Whatever it is that keeps nagging at your brain, that won’t leave you alone. There might be more than one thing. It might change over time. In fact, it probably will. But whatever it is that won’t leave you alone – that’s a thing to write about.

This doesn’t mean you’ll only ever write about one thing. If what obsesses you is, for example, ‘marriage’, or ‘travel’, or ‘desire’, there are a million different ways to write about each of those. But whatever obsesses you, whatever you write about, is part of your brand as a writer.

Build Your Brand:

I know, that’s a horrible, corporate-sounding word. But it’s useful for us to think about.

Often, when we think about branding in corporate terms, we think about a company’s logo. And for car manufacturers and tech companies etc, this is important – after all, most of us could name a lot of the world’s best-known companies from their logos.

But branding is about so much more than just having a single recognisable image. Companies with strong branding won’t just have a consistent logo. They’ll use a consistent font or fonts, which will be the same across packaging and printed publicity and websites. They’ll always write the date in the same format. When they talk about a product, they’ll always spell it and capitalise it and refer to it in the same way. They’ll use consistent colours or colour schemes.

Think about hotel chains, or chain coffee shops, or banks. There’s a decor that’s consistent across each of their branches, so that if you’re in an unfamiliar city or even a different country, if someone dropped you in, say, a Starbucks, you’d know that was where you were.

But still, branding is about more than that. It’s an ethos. It overlaps with company policy: how does this company treat its customers; what do they do in response to complaints; how do they treat their staff; what’s their environmental policy?

So how does this apply to you as a writer?

There are a number of ways you can build your own brand. As with companies, some of these are small, aesthetic choices, and some are larger decisions about your professional ethos. All of them should help you to appear more professional.

  • Choose an image. This isn’t exactly a logo, but when people ask for an author photo, don’t use a different picture every time. Personally, I have two photos that I regularly send out when an organisation wants an author photo: a headshot, and a full-body shot. In both of them, I have the same hairstyle, so I’m recognisably the same person. These are also the images I use across all of my professional social media, too. (The flipside to this is that you need to remember to update your author photo if/when your appearance changes drastically, so that your author photo is still recognisably you. For instance, if you chop all your hair off, or get a massive face tattoo, or just get older.)
  • Pre-prepare different versions of your bio. As with author photos, organisations are going to start asking for your bio. Each organisation will have its own stipulations for this – particularly in relation to length. Most will want it to be in the third person, and professional-sounding (occasionally you may get asked for a ‘fun’ or ‘informal’ bio, or one in the first person, but this is quite rare). Of course, what you say in your bio might well vary depending on what it’s for – for instance, I focus on different things depending on whether the bio is fiction- or poetry-related – and it’s definitely going to change as you gain more experience and add more achievements. But it’s worth writing a few different versions of your bio all the same: let’s say, a long version, a medium version, and a short version. This way, when someone asks you for one, you at least have something you can use and modify, which fits who you are as a writer.
  • Choose a font & style. Whenever I write, I use the same font and page layout. I do this because I know the style I’ve chosen looks professional, and it saves me from having to constantly make decisions about aesthetic style. Instead, like a newspaper or a magazine, I have a house style. It makes my life easier, and it makes my work look more professional. It’s recognisably mine – which is useful if I’m sorting through a bunch of post-workshop pages and am looking for my own. This style, like my biographies and my author photos, are part of my writing brand. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the style is: Garamond; font size 12; justified; title in size 14 (left-aligned for a poem, centred & underlined for prose); standard margins; poetry 1.15 line spacing; prose 2 point line spacing; prose paragraphs indented; header right-hand-aligned, containing name, title & page number. Obviously that isn’t the only option – it’s just my personal preference. As long as your work looks professional (no weird fonts, and definitely no Comic Sans), then that’s what’s important.
  • Choose an outfit style, if you like. If you want to take this aesthetic choice thing further, choose the sort of outfit you’d want to wear to an author event. Then create a number of variations thereon, always in the same style. This has 3 advantages: it becomes part of your ‘look’ as a writer; it makes you recognisable to readers; it saves you from getting anxious about what to wear every time you do an event. I know someone who always wears the same (quite plain) outfit for readings, but with a different vibrant scarf each time, to add variety. You don’t necessarily have to go that far, but it can be useful to have a ‘look’ – at least for professional purposes. If you turn up to one event in a cocktail dress and killer heels, and to the next in a hoodie, jeans & UGG boots, you’re giving off a different impression each time. And I know, this sounds shallow. I know, we shouldn’t judge people on appearances. But we do make aesthetic connections – and if you want to stick in people’s minds, then sending mixed stylistic signals might not make that any easier.
  • Know your own obsessions. This one is less about style, and more about content. You know what we said earlier, about having your obsessions as a writer, and writing about them? Try making a list of them. Write them down. Then, once you’ve identified them, find out more. Get involved with other people who have similar obsessions – not necessarily writers. For example, if your obsession is travel, speak to adventurers and gap year students; speak to pilots and people who work on ships; follow expeditions on twitter. This will help you in your writing – it’s always good to get a more in-depth knowledge of whatever obsessions you’re writing about. But it will also help you to connect with readers who aren’t writers, who aren’t in the book world. You’re building your brand, and building a potential audience at the same time.
  • What’s your ethos? What do you believe? Not necessarily your private beliefs, but your public ones. The ones you’d be happy to talk about in an interview, or a blog post, or on social media. What do you stand for? As a member of society, but particularly as a writer. I can think of writers, and individuals within the publishing industry, who stand strongly for: transparency of wages in publishing; fair payment of writers; the promotion of working class writers; the accessability of nature writing; the non-violent treatment of women in thrillers & crime fiction. For each of those issues, there’s a single name that comes to mind for me, of writers for whom this is part of their brand. This isn’t a false thing. It isn’t a case of saying ‘what can I stand for that will fit with my brand’ – like a company that uses meat pastured on deforested rainforest, but preaching about saving the environment. It’s about knowing what you stand for anyway, and doing it consciously. For example, I believe that the writing community needs to support one another, and that helping other writers is a good thing to do, because by helping other writers, I’m helping the institution of writing as a whole. It isn’t some twee thing to make me sound nice; I believe it with all my soul – that we, as writers, are colleagues, not competitors. So, I put this into practice by sharing my own experiences, and by sharing opportunities I come across with other writers – sometimes individually, often on twitter. This is part of who I am as a writer. If you like, it’s part of my brand.

Talk To Other Writers:

We all know that social media is a great way to connect with people, but there are the more old-fashioned ways as well. Such as, you know, in person.

One of your greatest resources as a writer (other than books, and maybe coffee) is other writers. You’d expect engineers to talk to other engineers, for accountants to meet with other accountants, for teachers to talk about how to deal with a challenging pupil with other teachers. So why do some of us think that writers should be stuck in a garret somewhere, eating crusty bread and not speaking to other writers?

Other writers can be great first readers of your work. They can be people to share experiences with over wine, and people to help you with your professional problems. I have writer friends who I send my first drafts to, who’ll tell me honestly what is and isn’t working. I have writers I share reading lists with, who give me book recommendations that are always reliably excellent. I have writers who I message when I’ve got a deadline looming that I don’t know how to meet, or when I’m struggling with a plot point, or when I can’t work out what to put as expenses on my tax return. I have writers who’ll celebrate good news with me, and who’ll com