With all the novel-related talk, it’s been a while since I shared a poem. Not since Easter, in fact. So, with summer (finally) here, I thought I’d share a swimming poem.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time revisiting places I used to go as a child – including several local swimming pools. On this occasion, I decided to spend about an hour swimming, determined to take a break from the desk life and get some exercise. Instead, I got the idea for the poem about fifteen minutes in, then spent the rest of the time holed up in a changing room cubicle, scribbling away. Oh well. I tried.

The poem is from Assembly Instructions (Southword, 2019).

1999

In the communal changing rooms where old women’s bodies
flapped and scattered droplets like pieces of crystal,
we contorted ourselves behind the bright flags of towels, wished
together for the other pool – the one with lockers and locked doors,

where the air was jungle-thick and cubicles close with damp –
where once I saw your chest raised like a ripple of water.
You whispered look, showed me the first kindling of hair,
and I had to ask does it hurt? so you said feel it – see? soft – like a bird – 

Though you meant only one bird, the sparrow in the old byre,
battering itself bloody against the glass, till your dad
caught it, said girls, said don’t be afraid, and kept it
quaking between his hands for us to stroke.

In the pool, my stomach is too bare, and a man
with ribs like a shelf of dusty Reader’s Digests watches me swim.

 

 

If you’ve glanced at this blog any time over the past few months, or if you follow me even vaguely on any social media platform, you’ll likely have noticed that my debut novel came out just over a week ago. ‘What’s that?’ you yell in mock surprise, a sarcastic hand flying to your cheek, ‘A novel? Well why didn’t you say something?’

Alright, I get the point. My Name is Monster came out ten days ago, and (with the exception of a photo of a giant bee) I haven’t really talked about much else since.

(Not really relevant to the post, but it was enormous!)

What actually happens when you launch a book?

In some ways, not a lot. One day your book isn’t available to buy in shops; the next day it is. This doesn’t always happen on the day you expect it to, either. Unless your book is embargoed till a specific date (think: queuing up at midnight for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), bookshops tend to just put the copies on the shelves the moment they arrive in stock. This could be a few days before the book’s official release date, so that rather than some momentous arrival, they sort of trickle into the public. I didn’t realise this until it was actually happening, so it was a bit of a surprise when people started sending me pictures of the book out and about in the wild, before its official release date.

Books are a bit like elections, in that they almost always come out on a Thursday. Presumably this is due to some social study about us being more receptive to culture, or more likely to spend money, or just in a better mood in general, towards the end of the week. Who knows? My secondary school concerts were always on a Thursday too.

This means that some writers will wait to have their official launch celebration till the Friday, or the Saturday. Some will have it on the launch day itself. I’m not sure it matters really – I think it’s about what’s most convenient for the writer and the venue.

Usually, a launch will consist of a reading, usually in a bookshop or a library, followed by a signing and maybe some wine. This is what I did on the Thursday that my book came out, at Cakes & Ale: the cafe run by the wonderful independent Carlisle bookshop, Bookends. It was a lovely evening, filled with lovely people, and a nice long signing queue! This, I suppose, was my informal formal bookshop launch, and it was a lovely way to begin the process of sending Monster out into the world.

But I remember reading an article once, a long time ago, where someone said: You can do anything to launch a book. 

So of course, I also channeled my inner royalty, and had a garden party.

Obviously, since this is Cumbria, I planned for the rain, and borrowed a couple of party tents from Morland Choristers’ Camp, as well as a bell tent from touring Shakespeare company, The Three Inch Fools. (Who says being well-connected in the arts doesn’t pay off?) It was lucky I did, as well, because although the morning’s torrential downpour had eased off slightly by the time the party got underway, it was still a bit drizzly throughout the afternoon – not to mention cold!

But, weather aside, it was a joyful event: totally informal (although I did do a couple of readings from the book during the course of the party, and I signed a lot of copies). It was an opportunity to celebrate and to drink plenty of Pimms with plenty of friends. I highly recommend it as a way of launching a debut novel!

So what now?

Although the official launch events are over, I’ve still got plenty of opportunities lined up for talking about the book. Most of these are in Cumbria, but there are also a few a little further afield.

This is what I suppose most people would call a book tour – though I always find that term a bit misleading, because when you talk about being ‘on tour’, I think a lot of people imagine you’re away for long periods of time, staying in hotels every night as you travel from place to place. Whereas for me, I’m spending most nights in my own bed and just driving to each event the same way I’d drive to anywhere I was working on a project.

(Thanks to Will Smith from Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere for this infographic!)

The exception to this is the London bit of the tour, where of course I will be staying overnight:

19 June:
The Feminist Book Society presents: Motherhood – the last feminist taboo // Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road, London, 6.30pm

20 June:
Writers’ Night: Katie Hale & Hanna Jameson // Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London, 7pm

So how do you organise a book tour?

Like everything else when it comes to publishing a book, it has to be done in advance. You can’t just decide a week before the book comes out that you’d like to do some events. I started talking to Bookends about my launch night back in November, and to Cumbria Library Service in about January. This advanced planning was particularly important for me, because I knew I would be out of the country for about 7 weeks in the lead-up to the book coming out, so I had to be on my toes from the start. (When in doubt, I always make lists – and I made a lot of lists in the months leading up to the launch.)

This is also where those contacts I was talking about earlier can come in handy. I already had a relationship with Bookends: apart from being my local bookshop (or one of them), they supported me with a guest slot at an open mic when my first poetry pamphlet came out, and are jointly responsible for Borderlines Book Festival (along with Cumbria the Library Service & Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery), where I ran a poetry workshop last year. Similarly, I had a contact at the Library Service, through a network we both used to sit on when I was working as a project officer for a literary project a few years ago. These sorts of connections aren’t essential, but it always helps if people know who you are before you ask them for a favour!

As for the other bits of the tour, they just sort of fell into place by themselves. The London events, and the Kendal & Lancaster Waterstones events, were organised for me by my publisher, Canongate. And the event at Sam Read Bookseller also came about through a personal connection: the lovely Will Smith & Polly Atkin, who fed me lots of pasta and jacket potatoes (not at the same time), while I was their neighbour as Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust back in February.

How’s it all going so far?

Busy.

I don’t think I realised quite how much of an emotional and physical toll the stress / pressure / need to always be alert and sound intelligent would take on me. And that’s on top of all the worrying about whether people are going to actually like this book you’ve written.

Luckily, I’m starting from a good place. Not only do I have a healthy smattering of events lined up, but the book itself looks beautiful. The cover design is the work of Canongate artist Gill Heeley, and I think that goes a long way towards how the book has been received at a bookseller level. For instance, most places I’ve seen it, the cover has been face out (so that the front of the book is visible, rather than just the spine), and in some cases it’s even been on freestanding displays or on tables. All of these things increase the prominence of the book in the shop, and push towards it (hopefully) selling more copies. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it all continues to go well.

And in the meantime, I have this weekend to catch up on sleep, hoover my kitchen and curl up by the fire with a book – which means that next week, I’ll be raring and ready to try to sound intelligent in book events once again.

10 pieces of advice for launching a book:

  1. Do your preparation in advance. This goes from physical preparation like organising book events, to getting in touch with local press contacts, to writing blog posts etc that will go live on the day. Part of this is about creating some sort of hype around the book, getting people excited, and part is just reducing work for yourself. You want to make things as easy as possible for yourself when the launch day finally comes around. Also bear in mind, you’re going to have to talk about your book a lot, so make sure you know in advance what you’re going to say about it. I worked out my elevator pitch with my publicist back around Christmastime, and I’ve been practising things to say about the book ever since – usually in the car when nobody can hear me!
  2. Take lots of pretty pictures of your book. You’re going to be posting about the book a lot on social media. Whether you’re talking about receptions it’s had, or trying to promote book events, these things always look better if there’s an eyecatching picture to go with them. So make sure you have a stock of these (and maybe keep them in a separate album on your phone / computer for ease), because you don’t want to keep using the same picture every time.
  3. Plan your outfits. This sounds shallow, but deciding what to wear is hard enough even when you’re not stressing about the fact that your book has just been released to the world at large. If you have a selection of outfits that you know you can wear to book events, which you’ve chosen in advance, then it takes the pressure off. Also, these outfits can become part of your ‘look’ as a writer – which I suppose is a way of branding yourself. Maybe I’ll do another post sometime about branding yourself as a writer, as there’s too much to fit into one little corner of this post.
  4. Don’t try to go on a diet in the weeks directly before or after the launch. I know, I know. Even looking at this now it sounds like a stupid idea. Why give myself extra pressure? Besides, when you’re bombing around the county / country doing book events, sometimes you just need to stop on the way back home for late-night chips & gravy.
  5. Don’t try to squeeze writing funding bids in between a full week of book events. Or any particularly stressful work, for that matter. Save your time and energy for promoting your book. And if there are funding applications with deadlines around the same time as your book launch, try to find out about them in advance, so you don’t give yourself a frantic few days of multitasking. That said, don’t forget about the rest of your work life either. Emails don’t just go away just because you have a book out – if anything, they increase. Remember to factor in admin time.
  6. If you have to work on something, make it a creative project. Almost certainly, you write because it’s something you enjoy, because it’s a drive that comes from deep within you and you can’t ignore it, because it’s some sort of unhealthy addiction and there’s a peace to be found in giving in to the urge to write. This might actually be the exact antidote to all that pressure of the book being launched. While you’re writing, you can forget the stress and the hype and the pressure of the book you’ve just launched doing well, and focus instead on the craft of a new project. Lose yourself in something new.
  7. Eat well. Late-night chips & gravy notwithstanding, it’s important to eat well. Don’t skip breakfast. Don’t try to subsist on leftover chocolate cake from launch event number one. Don’t spend every evening valiantly trying to get through the leftover open bottles of wine and prosecco. Honestly.
  8. Get plenty of sleep. Promoting a book is tiring. The physical toll of doing numerous events on consecutive nights is bad enough, but the emotional toll of the stress of it, the worry over how the book will be received, and the mental toll of having to think of intelligent-sounding things to say all the time – all of these add up. Make sure to factor in days off when you can have early nights and lie-ins.
  9. Take time to enjoy it. I’ve talked a lot about the stress and the pressure of launching a book, but obviously it’s also a pretty exciting time. After all, this is something you’ve been working towards for years. For as long as you’ve wanted to be a writer. For a long time, this was your end-goal. Your I’ve-made-it moment. Enjoy it, because it’s going to go quickly, and you don’t want to back on it and realise that you were too stressed to actually savour your own achievement. You’ve produced a book and should be proud of yourself. Take moments to appreciate that.
  10. Give yourself something to look forward to when it’s over. As I said, most likely this was your end-goal for a long time. You’ll be hectically busy, but you’ll also be on an emotional high. But, as every parent-of-a-toddler knows, emotional highs are nearly always followed by an emotional crash. The likelihood is, once your manic couple of weeks are done, you’ll be feeling pretty flat. So give yourself something to look forward to. It could be a holiday. It could be meeting up with friends. It could just be sitting by the fire with a pile of books and an unlimited supply of pizza. Whatever floats your boat.

A Book Launch Week in Pictures:

 

‘When the world is burning, it’s easy to forget about ice…’

It’s here! Two and a half years after I sat down by the fire and wrote that opening sentence, not really sure whether it would ever amount to anything other than ‘that night I decided not to watch Netflix’, My Name is Monster is a real live book, for sale in regular (and irregular) bookshops.

It’s a slightly odd feeling, knowing that the book is out there in the public. It feels a little bit like going to the supermarket in your underwear – not that I’ve ever done that. It’s the knowledge that people will be reading it (hopefully) and judging it (hopefully not too harshly) and that it’s now completely beyond my control.

In a way, of course, it’s also very liberating – just as I assume it must be walking through the fruit & veg aisle in your knickers.

BUY MY NAME IS MONSTER ONLINE

What other people have said about the book:

*

‘A terrific piece of writing; tough and tender and insightful. I loved it.’
– Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat

*

‘A complex, accomplished debut. The prose dazzles while the themes of feminism, power and fertility sneak in for a gut-punch. It kept me gripped from the first page, and the characters continue to live and breathe in my imagination.’
– Kirsty Logan, author of The Gracekeepers

*

‘Katie Hale has written two fascinating, flawed and compelling characters and, with only two people and an empty world, has created a novel that is gripping, insightful and unique.’
– Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days

*

‘A riveting and disturbing novel, part twisted fairy tale and part dystopian nightmare, in which the primal human need to find meaning and love shines through the darkness of a ruined world.’
– Mick Kitson, author of Sal

Events:

Over the coming weeks, I’ve got a number of events lined up to help promote the book, both close to home around Cumbria, and further afield – specifically London and Cornwall. If you’re near any of these, it would be lovely to see you there:

  • 6 June: My Name is Monster book launch // Cakes & Ale Cafe, Carlisle, 7.30pm
  • 10 June: My Name is Monster talk & book signing // Waterstones, King Street, Lancaster, 6.30pm
  • 11 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Ambleside Library, Cumbria, 3pm
  • 13 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Roose Library, Cumbria, 2.30pm
  • 13 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Ulverston Library, Cumbria, 7pm
  • 18 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Sam Read Books // Emma’s Dell, Grasmere, Cumbria, 7.30pm
  • 19 June: The Feminist Book Society presents: Motherhood – the last feminist taboo // Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road, London, 6.30pm
  • 20 June: Writers’ Night: Katie Hale & Hanna Jameson // Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London, 7pm
  • 25 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Penrith Library, Cumbria, 2pm
  • 25 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // The Old Courthouse, Shap, Cumbria, 7.30pm
  • 27 June: My Name is Monster talk & book signing // Waterstones, Kendal, Cumbria, 6.30pm
  • 28 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Dalton in Furness Library, Cumbria, 10.30am
  • 28 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Grange over Sands Library, Cumbria, 2.30pm
  • 27 July: My Name is Monster book event // Port Eliot Festival // Walled Garden, 11am

Or, in case you prefer things in a visual format, here’s a handy infographic of my Cumbria events (plus one in Lancaster), created by the lovely Sam Read bookshop:

Related posts:

My Name is Monster: the books that opened the door

From Idea to Book: My Journey to Publication

Almost from the moment my flight landed back from the US, I started gearing up towards the next big event of my writing year. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably already clocked that that big event is the release of my debut novel, My Name is Monster, which officially comes out on Thursday 6th June. The finished copies of the book were actually waiting for me when I got home, looking beautiful and shiny through the jetlagged haze.

Since then, it’s been largely a case of getting ready for them to be released into the world. I went up to Edinburgh and signed 135 copies of the book to be sent to independent bookshops. I’ve been writing blog posts. I’ve been talking to local press about the release, and trying to work out what I’m going to say at the launch, and which section(s) of the book I’m going to read. I’ve been talking about it a lot on social media.

Between that and catching up on 6 weeks’ worth of admin, the actual writing time has been a bit thin on the ground. That’s ok. For one thing, I managed to get a lot of writing done while I was in the States, and for another, being a writer isn’t just about writing.

A few good things:

1 – Open The Door Festival

A couple of weeks ago I attended part of the excellent Open The Door festival at Glasgow Women’s Library. What initially drew me to the festival was that my friend and all-round wonderful woman Jess Orr was involved in organising it, and was going to be interviewing Ali Smith during the event on the Saturday evening. But when I looked into it a bit more deeply, and actually googled the programme for the day, I quickly realised that enjoyment of this festival was going to go way beyond personal connection.

Unlike most festivals, which have an audience sitting and listening to what a writer / speaker has to say, then applauding politely and making their way to the bar, Open The Door operated a bit more like a conference, with a choice of interactive breakout sessions, meaning that the attendees were as much a part of the discussion and development of ideas as the writers and facilitators.

This approach led to a much friendlier sort of festival, and made it much easier for interesting conversations to spring up during the breaks.

2 – Theatre by the Lake

This month, the new trailer for the Theatre by the Lake was released, with words by yours truly. This was something I was commissioned to write several months ago, so by the time it came out it had slipped off my radar slightly. So it was a lovely surprise when the finished video popped up on facebook.

 

3 – Normal Life

One thing that has really been great this month has been getting back into my normal life after so many weeks away, and particularly getting back into attending my normal writing groups.

There’s something about writing groups – the combination of regular structured creative input and the support of trusted peers – that helps feed the creative process. Going back to my regular poetry group and my regular fiction group felt as much like a homecoming as it did landing at Heathrow airport. And of course, it was great to see all those familiar faces again.

Going to America was incredible, and such a boost for my writing and for the particular project I was researching. But returning to my own writing community was equally wonderful.

The month in books:

As with the writing, the reading has been slightly less this month. And, as with the writing, that’s kind of ok. The trick, I think (I hope), is not letting the lack of reading / writing become a habit. Which, given how much I’m itching to get back to both, I don’t think it will.

It’s been prose-heavy this month – something that often happens when I’m limited for time, as reading becomes more escapism at the end of a long day, rather than a habit of immersing myself in poetry first thing in the morning.

I’ve also read four books by friends this month, which always alters the feel of a month’s reading. Two of these came from the WriteNow scheme: Emma Smith-Barton’s The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, and Nels Abbey’s Think Like a White Man. The others were The Accusation, by Zosia Wand, and salt slow, by Julia Armfield. I can heartily recommend all four of these books. Each occupies a different genre (YA fiction; satirical self-help book; thriller; and literary short stories), and each is an example of blooming good writing in that genre.

salt slow is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year (although Lanny is nudging at it from a very close, and debatable, second place), so I think it’s fair to say that May has been a hugely enjoyable month when it comes to books.

  • The Accusation, by Zosia Wand
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, by Emma Smith-Barton
  • Scepticism Inc., by Bo Fowler
  • Lanny, by Max Porter
  • Anatomy of a Soldier, by Harry Parker
  • Natural Mechanical, by J O Morgan
  • Think Like a White Man, by Dr Boule Whytelaw III / Nels Abbey
  • salt slow, by Julia Armfield

The month in pictures:

Last weekend, I went to the Open the Door festival at Glasgow Women’s Library, where I heard (among other people) Ali Smith talking about the books and writers who had opened the door for her. It got me thinking about the writers that did that for me – both for poetry and for prose.

In poetry, I think this is slightly more complex, as a lot of the poets who have opened the poetry door for me have done it not just through their own writing, but also as individual people I’ve worked with. But what about fiction?

I’ve talked before about how Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme gave me the confidence to think of myself as a fiction writer in general – but what about the specific novel? What were the books that opened the door to My Name is Monster?

Bookcase bookshop, Carlisle

1 – Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe is probably one of the more obvious influences on the book, as in many ways My Name is Monster is a reversioning of Robinson Crusoe. It’s the story of a woman who believes she’s the last person left alive on earth – and then she finds a girl. The book echoes Crusoe’s solitude on the desert island, his quest for survival, and his subsequent finding (and enslaving) of Friday.

I’ve always had quite a complicated relationship with Robinson Crusoe, ever since I had to read it during my first year of university. On one hand, it’s a story that occupies such a prominent place in our culture. It’s amazing how many people know the story (or at least the basic elements of it), without having read the book itself.

It’s also amazing how many of those people think they’ve read the book, even when they actually haven’t. And understandably – on both counts. There are numerous retellings of the Crusoe survival story, from The Martian to Castaway to Bear Grylls, so it makes sense that we think we know it. But the book itself is actually pretty heavy going. There are a lot of pages before Friday even appears (and before the famous ‘footprint in the sand’ moment), largely narrating Crusoe’s religious transformations, or going into very great detail on the mechanics of building a shelter. Despite being a story so many of us think we know, it isn’t exactly a page-turner. At least, not until the pirates show up.

And of course, there’s also the problematic colonial aspect to the book: its positioning of Friday as the enslaved native who Crusoe proceeds to ‘civilise’; Crusoe’s ability to lay claim to the island solely by virtue of his having been washed up there; the problem of his naming of things.

These were all aspects of the book that drew me in, and that made me want to answer it in some way. My Name is Monster is in many ways a reversioning of Robinson Crusoe, but it’s also a response to some of its themes.

bookshelf - Katie Hale

2 – Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

As well as being a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, My Name is Monster is also very heavily influenced by Frankenstein.

Unlike Crusoe, I’ve loved Frankenstein ever since I read it – again during my first year of university. In some ways, the themes of the two classics are quite similar: both deal with one human’s desire to create and control another, and ways of coping with enforced isolation. Both ask who has the power to name a person or a thing.

But whereas Crusoe puts Friday in a position of subservience, Frankenstein presents two individuals with a much more complex creator / created relationship. They are really equal protagonists, and the questions this allows the book to ask are much more complex – questions that have shaped the genre of science fiction ever since, such as to what extent can a created being be considered human?

The question of how much we can truly create another conscious being is one that feeds directly into My Name is Monster – as, of course, does the name ‘Monster’.

Sliding ladders in Topping's Bookshop, St Andrews
Sliding ladders in Topping’s Bookshop, St Andrews

3 – The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Given that My Name is Monster is set in an empty world, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s a post-apocalyptic novel on this list. I first read The Road when I was at secondary school, and it made a huge impression on me.

What I loved about the post-apocalyptic element to the book, was that that wasn’t the story. The story was the man and the boy, and the relationship between them. The post-apocalyptic setting was just the circumstances needed to tell that relationship story. This is something that interests me: the way something huge can have happened / can be happening in the world of the book, but we remain focussed on the central characters, and on the relationship between them.

Of course, The Road is also just a beautiful written book. The prose is so precise that it feels incredibly simple. But, like most things that appear simple, it’s a demonstration of huge writing skill, and an ability to cut away all the details that don’t really matter – something that’s much harder than it sounds in something the size of a novel!

writing prompt - Katie Hale

4 – The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

The most recent book on this list, The Shepherd’s Life, is only a few years old. It’s a non-fiction book about sheep farming on the Cumbrian fells. It’s a sort of love letter to the landscape I’ve grown up in, and to its agriculture.

When I first moved back to Cumbria after university, I was feeling a bit of resentment. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Cumbria (it’s beautiful, for one thing, and there’s a sense of individuals mattering here in a way that sometimes gets lost in cities) – but it was more that I felt like I ought to have gone somewhere else; this was where I started, and being back here felt like I hadn’t moved forward at all. Like a lot of people who move home / near home, I was worried I would revert to the person I was when I last lived here, aged 18.

Reading The Shepherd’s Life helped me fall in love with Cumbria again. Rebanks’ experiences of Cumbria are very different to mine; although I grew up surrounded by farms and fields and sheep, I’m not from a farming family, so I don’t have the same inter-generational relationship with the land. But the book is so connected to the physicality of the landscape that it helped me to feel connected to Cumbria again. I felt I understood the landscape in a way I’d only ever guessed at before – and that fed into the characters’ lifestyles in My Name is Monster.

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

5 – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

Probably like a lot of queer people, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit opened so many doors for me, not just in terms of fiction, but in life as well. Like The Road, I read it while I was at secondary school, and it shaped my understand of who and what could belong in a novel.

But it also influenced my understanding of character – the bold details that can make a character leap off the page, till you feel as though they’re somebody you’ve met – and of the unreliable narrator: something that was compounded when I read Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal several years later.

The nods to history and fairytale and mythology in much of Winterson’s work is something that I often think about – something that also captures me in Ali Smith’s writing. I’m interested in the way in which all of this provides intertextuality, and gives the novel breadth, so that it seems to breathe beyond the confines of it’s 200-ish pages. Like in The Road, the focus remains on the character(s) at the centre of the story, but there’s so much more happening in our peripheral vision.

*

My Name is Monster is due from Canongate on 6th June 2019, and is available for pre-order from all good bookshops.

My debut novel, My Name is Monster, hits the shelves in just two and a half weeks, and it’s got me thinking about how there’s something magical – something almost metaphysical – about the creation of a book. How something can go from being the tiniest flicker of an idea, to being a fully fledged novel, a physical thing you can hold in your hands.

Even when it’s your own book, it can still feel like something of a mysterious process.

Did you know you can pre-order My Name is Monster from a lovely independent bookshop?

Every book’s path to publication is different. It can depend on so many factors: the genre of book, the stage of the writer’s career, the agency or particular publisher, the availability of funding or mentoring schemes, how much of a platform the writer has to begin with.

Since The Bookseller announced the acquisition of My Name is Monster by Canongate back in 2018, a few people have asked my advice on various aspects of the publishing process. As a debut novelist, I’m still working some of this stuff out for myself, but it always surprises me to look back and see just how much I’ve learned since all this started. How does it all work? How do you get an agent? How long does it take to get published? What does the writer get offered in a typical contract?

I can’t speak for every book, but I can share my own experiences. How did My Name is Monster go from being nothing more than a thought, to being on the verge of publication in a couple of weeks?

My Name is Monster - editing, by Katie Hale

Let’s start at the very beginning…

Like every story, My Name is Monster started with an idea. Unlike J K Rowling (who famously gave an account of having the idea for Harry Potter while on a train journey), I don’t remember exactly what that first spark of a story was. I do remember that it started with Frankenstein, and the extent to which we can create another human, and that this initial idea was a long long way from the eventual narrative of the book. I’m also pretty sure that it came to me during a service in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, where I used to sing in the choir on Sundays. This dates it to the early part of 2011, probably a few weeks after the National Theatre had broadcast their double productions of Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch & Johnny Lee Miller.

But if that was the birth of the novel, it wasn’t really it’s beginning in any concrete sense. Sure, I played with the idea now and again, when I was feeling carsick or bored on the bus, but it was just fantasy really. (Then again, aren’t all stories?) It was just a story I told myself from time to time – albeit one that developed in my head with each retelling.

Back then, I didn’t think of myself as a novelist at all. I was a poet, and I had this feeling that if I wanted to remain a poet, I ought not to focus on anything else. I’d put myself in my little poetry box, and I think as much as anything, I was afraid to come out.

My Writing Life: February - Katie Hale, Cumbrian writer
WriteNow insight day with Penguin Random House

WriteNow:

Fast-forward to August 2016. I was in Oregon, having just finished an epic West Coast road trip with two friends. In about a week’s time, I would be making my way home, pretty certain that I didn’t have a job to come back to.

Up until the end of 2015, I’d been working two part-time jobs while trying to build my freelance writing work – adding up to around 8 days a week and requiring unsustainable energy levels. Towards the end of 2015, my freelance work was increasing, and it became clear that one of the part-time jobs had to go. Arts funding being what it is, by the time I left for the US, the other one looked on the verge of drying up as well.

In other words, I was panicking slightly and applying for everything.

That was when WriteNow landed in my inbox, flagged up by my editor at Flipped Eye, Jacob Sam-La Rose. WriteNow is a mentoring scheme run by Penguin Random House, for emerging writers from demographics facing barriers to traditional publishing. The first round offered 150 writers a place on one of 3 insight days, with author/agent/publisher panels, and a chance to have a section of your manuscript critiqued by a Penguin Random House editor. The second round offered a year’s mentoring.

The opportunity seemed to good to pass up. There was only one problem: they didn’t accept poetry.

So, two days before the application was due, I sat down and wrote the opening section of the novel. The following day, on the train down to my grandma’s, I wrote the rest of the application. I wasn’t sure whether or not it was any good. Could I write fiction? Who knew? I made a pact with myself: if I got a place on one of the insight days, I would write the rest of the novel.

I never even dreamed that I would make it all the way to the final group – but wonderfully, incredibly, that’s what happened.

I worked on the manuscript with Heinemann editor Tom Avery, whose guidance was invaluable in helping me to navigate the nuts and bolts of the story I was telling – and in giving me the confidence to start thinking of myself as a novelist as well as a poet. During the course of the year, I completed the first draft of the novel, and then another six subsequent drafts. It was also during this year that I signed with my agent: Lucy Luck, and Conville & Walsh.

writing life

Getting an Agent:

For a lot of people, this is the first barrier they face to getting their work published. So few publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts (manuscripts not sent by an agent), that it’s quite rare for writers of fiction and non-fiction not to have an agent – though of course there are exceptions to every rule.

I was lucky. The WriteNow scheme meant that Tom put me in touch with a number of fantastic agents – one of whom was Lucy. She read my manuscript, liked my work, and agreed to take me on. From my end, it really was that simple – though of course I know that for many people it’s much more difficult than that. Like anything, it helps to be recommended by someone.

I may write a more detailed post at some point in the future about what an agent does for a writer, and why I’ve already found it hugely beneficial, but for now I’ll just say: signing with Lucy was the next step towards My Name is Monster becoming a real live book.

Proof pages of My Name is Monster, by Katie Hale

Acquisitions:

Again, I may go into this in more detail in a future post, but put simply, ‘acquisitions’ is when a publisher buys (or acquires) the right to publish your manuscript.

Because of WriteNow, Penguin Random House had first refusal on whether or not they wanted to publish. Eventually, after a lot of conversations, they decided against it, and so Lucy sent the manuscript out to other editors at other publishers.

After an agonising period of waiting, two publishers came back positive. I had conversations with both editors, and Lucy negotiated with both publishing houses on the offers made, until we had something we were happy with. I chose to sign with Canongate.

There are many reasons I went with Canongate in the end. One of these was financial (like any job, you have to think about the bottom line, and the advance from Canongate would buy me more time to work on a future novel). But it wasn’t the only reason. I really got on with Jo Dingley, my editor – another northerner, who I found I had a lot in common with. I liked the fact that Canongate were based in Edinburgh (much closer and easier to get to than London). I liked the fact that they were a smaller publisher, and independent, but still had enough presence in the publishing world. I liked the books they published – not only in terms of content, but also in terms of design. I liked the care they put into creating books that were also beautiful objects. On a slightly more frivolous note, I liked that they had an office dog.

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

Working with the publisher:

Understandably, a lot of people tend to think that, once a book has been acquired, that’s it. It’s been given the seal of approval and will be available in shops soon after. But that isn’t quite the case.

For me, the turnaround was relatively quick. The book comes out roughly a year after I signed with Canongate. Because of all the editing work through WriteNow, the manuscript was in pretty good shape at the point of signing. I think I only did one edit through with Jo (alright, maybe one and a half), followed by a number of proofreads.

And by ‘a number of proofreads’, I mean ‘absolutely loads of proofreads’. Proofs once the novel has been edited. Then more proofs following typsetting. Then more proofs once the ARC (Advance Reading Copy) is published. And then one final sweep after that.

Somewhere in amongst all that comes the beautiful moment when you see the first designs for the cover. Somewhere else in amongst all that come the terrifying first quotes from other writers, about what they thought of your book.

Most of this excitement came in fits and starts throughout the year. Gradually, though, it all starts to build towards…

Publication day

What happens on publication day? Well, this is the day that the book finally goes on sale in shops – although it is available to pre-order before then.

For me, I’m officially launching the book during the evening on publication day, at my local independent bookshop: Bookends in Carlisle.

My Name is Monster: Book Launch

Cakes and Ale Cafe, Carlisle
Thursday 6th June, 7.30pm
Tickets: £3 (includes £3 off the book)
Cumbrian author Katie Hale will join us in Cakes and Ale Cafe to launch her debut novel My Name Is Monster. She will discuss the story and her writing before taking questions and signing copies.
ORDER TICKETS HERE

And what happens after that? Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
– Virginia Woolf

I’ve recently come home from seven weeks away from my own regular writing room (read: my kitchen table). During that time, away from my normal routine and my habitual space, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I need in order to write. What are the circumstances that help me, the magical ingredients that go into the mix for creating inspiration?

During my 7 weeks away, about 2.5 of those weeks were spent actively on the road, never in one place for more than a couple of nights. Three of those weeks were spent on a residency at MacDowell Colony, and the rest was spent researching in New York Public Library. The writing circumstances across these weeks were about as varied as I could have asked for over the course of a single trip. And most of the time, I still managed to write.

Ok, so the amount that I wrote varied drastically. As you’d expect, I wrote far more during my three week residency than I did the rest of the trip – but I’m not sure this was entirely about having a room of my own (although my little cabin in the woods was undoubtedly wonderful). I think it was more to do with having the dedicated time for writing, and (that magical ingredient) headspace.

(Let me just make a caveat here: all of the time I was away was technically ‘poetry time’. Even when I wasn’t at MacDowell, I was either at a poetry festival, or in London for a poetry event, or actively dedicating research time to my current poetry project.)

So, building on all of that, what are five things I’ve come to realise about writing on the move?

1 – Writing on the move is just like writing at home

Every writer is different. Consequently, every writer’s process is also different, which means that every writer will require something different in order to feel at their most creative – whether this is nothing more than a stub of pencil and the back of an envelope, or a chaise longue and fourteen daiquiris mixed by a six-foot albino wearing a penguin suit and stilettos. (That isn’t my rider, I promise. Maybe it should be?)

The trick, I found, was to create the same circumstances for writing while I was away that I would normally create at home. For me, this is a quiet space (with plenty of natural light if possible), a notebook and a pen. It’s also about finding a time when I know I’m not going to be interrupted by anything or by anyone.

At home, I need to consciously carve out these occasions from the rest of my life. It’s all too easy to let admin and emails swamp the entire working day, then to get to the end of the week and realise I haven’t done any writing whatsoever. In order to make sure that doesn’t happen, I have to put in the effort. I have to set aside time for the writing.

On the road, it’s no different. I just have to decide that I’m going to get up an hour earlier, so I can write with a morning coffee. Or decide not to browse Twitter for the river crossing on the car ferry, but instead to use that fifteen minutes as dedicated free writing time. Or I have to set aside an hour for a coffee break, during which I work on a poem. The dedication needed is exactly the same.

2 – Writing on the move is absolutely nothing like writing at home

When I was a student, I used to write whenever I could grab a spare moment. Now, I like to lean a bit more into a routine. Ok, so maybe ‘routine’ is the wrong word, as that can vary at a moment’s notice. But I do understand the ways of putting my day together, so that I can choose the optimum time for writing.

When I’m on the moving, all that changes. I found myself aiming to write in the evenings, between dinner and bed time. Normally, this could be quite a productive time slot for me, but what I learned is that this doesn’t work if it follows on from six hours of driving, for example. This might sound obvious, but it quickly became something to factor into my planning. Instead, I ended up stopping en route for coffee towards the start of the day, so that I could write before my brain become too befuddled by all that travelling.

Instead of writing in the privacy of my own motel room, I ended up writing more in public spaces: coffee shops during the latter part of my trip, and, during the first part of the trip, New York Public Library.

Which brings me onto…

3 – Space

Unsurprisingly, the spaces I was writing in changed while I was away. In some ways this is obvious: I couldn’t write at my kitchen table because my kitchen (and the table) was a six hour flight away. So I had to think practically about what sort of space I need in order to write.

While I was at MacDowell, this obviously wasn’t a problem. In fact, it was an idyllic situation, as every day I could walk to my dedicated little cabin in the woods and write to my heart’s content, and where the only disruption to my day was when I had to get up to go outside and see if my picnic basket had been delivered yet for lunch.

But on the road, writing space needed more consideration.

What I found was that I can write in public spaces almost as easily as I can write in private spaces, given the odd caveat – such as nobody reading over my shoulder. I’m also not great with places that play music, particularly if that music has lyrics. I find myself listening to the words or the music instead of listening to myself thinking. Some sort of table (at table-height, rather than a sofa with a coffee table). Coffee helps, but is not essential. Ideally, nobody else there that I know – there’s something about anonymity in a space that helps with writing.

And that’s pretty much it. It turns out that I’m not nearly as picky about writing space as I thought I was. And it took travelling to the other side of the world for me to learn that.

(Of course, now that I’m back at home, I do still love working at my kitchen table. One of the downsides of writing in a coffee shop or a library is that you can’t really read your words aloud to yourself without getting funny looks…)

4 – Inspiration

So far, I’ve talked a bit about the limitations of writing on the move, and how I needed to adapt my writing style to the travelling lifestyle. But of course there are positive sides to it as well. The whole reason I went to the US in the first place was one of these positive sides: to research a poetry collection in the places where parts of it are set.

But travelling can also allow for unexpected inspiration. For me, that’s one of the best aspects of travelling. I’ve written multiple poems that I know would never have existed if it weren’t for travel. Which makes sense: life filters into art, and when we travel we’re more alert to life going on around us. We’re in a place, and often a culture, that we’re not entirely used to, and this makes us pay attention. And, of course, paying attention is exactly what provides quality material for writing.

I often find myself making notes while I’m travelling, so that I have something to look back on. Sometimes this takes the form of a diary. Sometimes it’s literally just a text note on my phone, with phrases and images jotted down in a long list. It sort of doesn’t matter, as long as I have something to look back on.

I rarely write complete poems when I’m travelling – although because of the specific poetry focus of this trip, I did end up writing a few complete drafts of poems while I was away this time. But more often, the travels will filter into the poems once I’m back: my experience percolating through my brain till they drip quite naturally into whatever poem is waiting to receive them.

Either way, writing or thinking about writing while on the move is a great way to inject some variety and freshness into the work.

5 – Managing your expectations

Last, but not least, I learned to be aware of my own limitations. This is probably something I need to think about in my life at home as well, but especially on the road – it’s so easy to create a plan for everything you want to write or to work on, and forget that, when you’re away, things take longer. I mean, getting from place to place always takes longer than the satnav says it will, because it doesn’t factor in stopping, or your slightly slower opposite-side-of-the-road driving pace, or getting lost. Getting fuel takes longer. Doing laundry takes longer.

As well as taking loner, all of these things take more energy, because you’re having to think about them a bit harder. Example: I went to buy shampoo, and whereas at home I would walk into the shop, pick my regular shampoo off the shelf and pay (all in the space of about three minutes), in America, I had to first work out which shop to go to, and then look at all the different brands and prices, and then work out the tax, and all the rest of it. Everything just takes that little bit more time and energy to figure out.

All of this is good in some ways, of course, as it feeds into Point 4, and that added alertness we have when we’re out of familiar territory. But what it does mean is that I had to manage my expectations as to how much I was going to write in a day. With the exception of the MacDowell residency, where I wrote way more than I expected, I generally wrote less while I was away than I would have done at home. But that’s ok. After all, it isn’t all about quantity – and the research and additional stimulation enabled by being abroad was, without a doubt, priceless.

April is by far from being the cruellest month. Sorry, T S Eliot, but this past month has been an absolute dream for me. From the tail-end of a research week at New York Public Library, to a three-week MacDowell Fellowship in New Hampshire, to just over a week travelling around Virginia & Kentucky to research a poetry collection – it’s been one heck of a month.

I’m writing this sitting in the airport, waiting for my flight back to the UK. In other words, my flight back to reality. Or, to put it another way, my flight back to the present.

My trip to America has mostly been about the past. I came over here courtesy of a ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ grant from Arts Council England, with the remit of conducting historical research to assist me with the writing of my first full-length poetry collection. Some of that writing has happened during the research time (both at New York Public Library, and on the road in Virginia & Kentucky), and of course some has happened during my residency at MacDowell.

I’ll probably write a whole other post about the Developing Your Creative Practice grant at some point – I think it deserves its own post. But for now, I just want to highlight a few of my favourite research moments:

A few good things:

Monticello: There are a number of different tours you can do at Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson. The main tour takes you around the house and talks a bit about Jefferson’s life and achievements. This sounded interesting enough, but it wasn’t what I was there for. Instead, I took the Hemings Family Tour, which explores the life of Jefferson’s primary slave family – including Sally Hemings, with whom he had a number of children. The tour is part small-group tour, part seminar, and encourages discussion among participants – about the historical context of slavery in Virginia and across the US, and about its legacy today. For me and for my work, it opened up new ways of thinking about slavery, and about slave ownership. If you’re going to Monticello and are interested in a more in-depth and complex exploration of the site, then I highly recommend doing this tour.

Mammoth Caves National Park: A very different site, but no less intriguing, was Mammoth Caves National Park. I went because I was interested in exploring the idea of heritage as rooted in place, and caves are a physical manifestation of that idea. They’re literally history carved out through rock. What I didn’t quite expect was for the time I spent there to be this little natural oasis in the midst of all the history and driving. The scale of it, somehow, put everything in some kind of perspective. I did the Historic Tour (which involved walking about two miles underground, and A LOT of steps). I’m still working through all the ideas I bumped up against during that part of the trip (and during the trip as a whole), but even just as an experience it was definitely one of the highlights.

Genealogy research at New York Public Library: The genealogy division at New York Public Library are fantastic. Honestly, I can’t sing their praises enough for all the assistance they provided. Not to mention that the Milstein Division is just such a beautiful space to sit and work in. Again, I’m still wading through some of my findings, but the information I came across formed the backbone of some of the work I’ve been doing during my MacDowell residency.

How will all of this research filter into the poetry? Well, some of it has already, of course – I spent three weeks at MacDowell using a lot of the research I did at New York Public Library. And as for the Virginia / Kentucky research? I think I’m going to be working that into the poetry for a long time to come!

The month in books:

For once, it’s been a good month for reading. Like a lot of people, I suppose, I don’t seem to build enough reading time into my days. But this month has been different. I guess that’s what happens when you have three weeks dedicated to nothing but creativity. You make time for the things that help fuel that creative drive.

  • Vertigo & Ghost, by Fiona Benson
  • Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky
  • A Love Story for Bewildered Girls, by Emma Morgan
  • The Quick, by Jessica Traynor
  • We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The House on Marshland, by Louise Glück
  • A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver
  • Mythos, by Stephen Fry
  • Pulse Points, by Jennifer Down
  • What Happens on Earth, by Alfredo Aguilar
  • For One More Day, by Mitch Albom
  • Sailing Alone Around the Room, by Billy Collins

The month in pictures:

 

A stone cabin in the woods. Outside, the snow is falling in big wet flakes. This is probably the last snow of the season, although it’s impossible to tell for sure. It settles on the bare open ground between the edge of the cabin and the beginning of the trees, and on the dirt road that leads back to the main house. The trees are still and unusually silent.

Inside, the cabin is cosy and warm. On the red brick floor, spilling from underneath the enormous plush rug, are the blackened patches marking where the cabin burned down in the 70s, and the floor was the only thing able to be saved. The wooden table you have been using as your desk is a wide stretch of possibility, covered with books and page markers and bits of leaf you’ve brought in from the outside to try to describe. Your poems are laid out in neat rows on the rug behind you. You twiddle your pen between your thumb and forefinger. You listen to the clicks and taps as the heating reasserts itself. You begin to write.


For three weeks, I was an artist in residence at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Every morning after breakfast, I would walk from my room in the shared house, along the dirt road through the woods, to my studio to write. While there, I was writing poetry, working (very very gradually) towards a full collection. I would sit in my studio, in the most peaceful surroundings, writing or reading or collecting ideas, until my lunch was brought to me in a little picnic basket. At which point I would stop, eat lunch, then carry on in the afternoon. Sometimes I would stop to go for a woodland wander and some fresh air. Sometimes I would try to figure out chords on the studio’s Steinway, for no other reason than that I enjoy using my brain in that logical, pattern-based way now and again. In the evenings, I would go to Colony Hall with the other artists in residence – up to 24 of us in total. Afterwards we would listen to someone present work, or I would read in the library, or we would watch a film. This was my life for three incredible weeks.
The days themselves were hugely productive. Even on the days I didn’t actually write very much, I did so much reading and thinking and pulling together ideas for the collection. It’s amazing how much extra time there is in a week when you don’t have to worry about cooking / buying groceries / ploughing through admin.  MacDowell Colony’s motto is ‘Freedom to create’, and it definitely lives up to its name.

What MacDowell provides: 

  • Accommodation, either in a bedroom in a shared house, or in a live-in studio
  • A studio (aka a cabin in the woods)
  • 3 meals a day, including cooked breakfast, lunch delivered to your studio in a picnic basket, and communal dinner
  • Access to the collections in the James Baldwin Library – one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve ever worked in
  • An optional lift into town twice a week
  • Coffee (or tea) available all the time – such an essential for writing!

You can also apply for a stipend to help fund your time away from regular life, and for a travel grant.

What I liked most about the residency: my top 3:

  • My cabin in the woods: let’s be honest, what writer out there hasn’t daydreamed about getting to work in their own little studio surrounded by beautiful trees?
  • Meeting other artists: MacDowell accepts residents in all art forms, so the range of interests and practices at MacDowell was such a treat to immerse myself in – and wonderful to hear the other artists sharing their work.
  • Time: I’ve already said this, I know, but I can’t emphasise enough how important it was to have that time to write, with absolutely no other commitments. Such a luxury, that meant I was able to eat, sleep and breathe the project I’m working on.

Special mention also has to go to Frisky (the director’s gorgeous dog, who popped into breakfast every morning for a scratch behind the ears, and to check if we’d dropped any bacon on the floor) – and to the cat we nicknamed Baldwin (after the James Baldwin library). Baldwin eventually turned out to be a missing cat from a house down the road, but in the time it took to figure that out, she’d already become a firm friend, and followed me around the campus.

The only problem? Three weeks definitely didn’t feel like long enough. I could have spent so long there, revelling in the opportunity to be creative with no distractions from the outside world!

 

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past few weeks working on poetry as part of my MacDowell Fellowship in New Hampshire. I’ve also been spending a lot of time sitting in the beautiful James Baldwin Library at MacDowell, looking out at the gorgeous views of meadows and forest beyond.

With both of those things in mind, I thought I’d share a poem.

‘In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss’ is a poem in my second chapbook, Assembly Instructions (Southword Press, 2019). It was written following a workshop I ran a year or so ago, at my old school: QEGS in Penrith, Cumbria. I was working with the school’s creative writing club, exploring poetry and its relationship to place. The workshop took place in the school library…

*

In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss

the students are writing poems. I say,
write in an animal. Include an insect –
make the poem crawl. End
with something that opens, give it space.
What colour is your poem? Blue, they say, or Green.
One says his poem contains a bird and birds
always make a poem purple.

What colour was that Friday afternoon
before the buses came? Some now-or-never
shade – when never was Monday and weekends
were an ocean –
and I remember his mouth was the pink
cavity of a conch, and the books were grey with dust
and undisturbed, though I swear behind their spines
they whispered. I swear they’re whispering now.

The boy’s tongue tasted of pennies and rich tea biscuits
and there was too much of it. Our kiss
was the colour of water.

I say, put water into your poems.
Like the sea?

Yes, I say, or a vase or tap
or gob of spit.

                        But Miss, they say,
that could be anything.

And I say, Yes. Exactly.

 

So many times, at book talks and author events, I’ve heard people ask a writer: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I’ve been asked it myself – often by children in school writing workshops. And it makes sense as a question; we’re so often fascinated by the workings of other people’s minds, and by the creation of something out of nothing.

But the thing is, it’s kind of a difficult question to answer. A lot of the time, our ideas seem to appear to us from nowhere, from the mysterious depths of the unconscious. Call it inspiration. Call it a synaptic glitch. Call it the creative brain working overtime while all you appear to be doing is washing the dishes. However you see it, it’s certainly difficult to pin down, and many writers don’t really have a clue where that initial spark of an idea actually comes from.

Which is great if you’re a writer and enjoy maintaining an air of mystery – but rubbish if you’re stuck for story ideas and just want somewhere reliable to find one.

Writers’ block and what to do about it

Well here are five prompts for seeking out an idea. Unlike some of my previous prompts, these ones are actually sequential – so they lead on from one another. The idea being that, at the end, you’ll have enough of an idea to get you writing a new story. It may work for you. It may not. Either way, practice makes perfect!

image

 

1 – Go somewhere you’ve never been before

‘Once a year, go somewhere you’ve never been before.’ – Dalai Lama

Most of the time, when you see this quotation online, it’s superimposed against a backdrop of palm trees or world maps or aeroplanes. But going somewhere new doesn’t have to mean travelling to another continent. It can be just as interesting (and certainly much cheaper) to explore somewhere new within your own back yard.

It might be a neighbourhood you’ve never visited. A walk you’ve never gone on. A café or pub you’ve wandered past but never actually been inside. Make it somewhere where you can comfortably sit and write for an hour or so, without getting thrown out, or so cold that your fingers no longer work. Then visit it.

As soon as you’re there, start looking around you. Notice everything: the smells, the overriding colour of the place, the feeling of the atmosphere, the sounds – whether they’re in harmony with one another, or whether there’s one particular sound that stands out. Notice how you feel when you’re in this space – not just emotionally, but what is it like to physically occupy a body in this particular space on this particular occasion? Write all of this down. As much as you possibly can. Build a complete picture of your place.

*

2 – Who’s There?

This post isn’t just about creating a believable setting. If you’ve spent time on the first prompt, you’ll already have done that. After all, reality exists in the details. Instead, it’s about using place to generate story. So, next, we need to think about character.

Create a character who inhabits your space. If you’re in a café, then maybe your character is the person making the coffees. Maybe it’s the old woman who goes there every afternoon for a cup of tea. Maybe it’s the man who brings his toddler on a Monday afternoon. Maybe it’s the cyclist passing through.

Whoever you choose (and you can base them on an observed person or on somebody totally fictional), make them detailed. Figure out who they are.

If you want, you can start by using some of the more generic character prompts.

5 Fiction Prompts: Getting To Know Your Character

They, once you already have a bit of a sense of who this person is, you can make it specific to this particular setting. What are they doing in the space? Are they familiar with it, or is it their first time there as well? Are they comfortable in this space?

The relationship between the person and the place that you’re describing is going to be key, so don’t be afraid to make it a large part of their character formation. For instance, the old woman who goes there every afternoon might have her eye on the young barista. The cyclist passing through might be suddenly hit with a desire to visit his estranged brother, because the taste of a particular chocolate cake reminds him of a childhood birthday party.

*

3 – Look Deeper

You have an idea of who your character is, and how they occupy this space. But what do they want? What’s going to happen?

These two questions are intrinsically linked. Nearly always, what happens in a story is governed by what a character wants, and the barriers that are in place to prevent them getting it. So let’s look at how place can help us with that.

Now you’ve created your written portrait of this place, think about what it represents. For instance, if you’re on a walk that runs next to a train track, there are all sorts of themes that could be sparked by that – themes like industry, progress, moving on, being on the edge of things, forced direction… Then again, if you’re in a bustling café in the centre of town, there’s a very different set of themes in play: socialising, food, consumerism, communication… Or, if you’re at a swimming pool: water (and all the many things that can represent, such as depth and memory and life and purification), being out of your element, children, health and exercise…

This is the hidden level to your place, the aspect of it that speaks to the subconscious, to our story-building brains. And we can use it to help tell story, or even to help prompt it.

First, list as many themes as you can that are connected to your place. Write them down so you can see them. Then, once you have the list, choose the one that most interests you.

Let’s say my place is a café, and I’ve chosen the theme of ‘communication’. And perhaps the character I’ve chosen is that cyclist passing through, who tries the chocolate cake and is reminded of his brother.

For this exercise, what my character wants has to be connected in some way to the theme. So the chocolate cake might spark a desire to communicate with his brother. Maybe their problem has always been an inability to communicate.

(If you want to add another theme, and you feel you can do that without muddying the waters, then go ahead. For instance, their inability to communicate might be based on their different appetites – not necessarily literal, but emotional; their different approaches to consumerism.)

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4 – Through Their Eyes

Now that you know your place, and you’ve gotten to know your character and what they want as well, we’re going to combine the two.

Write another description of the place, but from your character’s point of view.

Remember to keep in mind who your character is, and what they want. What do they notice about the place that you didn’t? Maybe they’ll notice particular people, or the stains on the waitress’s apron, or the way the sunlight sparkles off the teacups. My cyclist with the estranged brother will probably notice families conversing, or the moments of failed communication between others – such as when the waitress gets somebody’s order wrong. Maybe he’ll also notice something symbolic, like the frayed wire on the telephone cord. If he likes the café, then he might also be noticing all the things his brother would dislike about it.

The character’s state of mind, what they want, and how they feel in the place will all govern how they see it.

It might be easier to write this in first person. If it is, then go for it.

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5 – Now What?

Now you have a more complex understanding of your place. You’ve observed it closely. You’ve created a character to inhabit it. You’ve seen it through their eyes.

This is all great, and hugely important work for the scene / story / whatever it is you’re about to write. But so far, nothing’s happened.

So we come back to what our character wants, and what obstacles are in their way to getting it. List them, if you like. Then try putting them in order: what’s the biggest barrier to them getting what they want? What’s the one that they’re going to find hardest to overcome?

This might be connected to the place, or it might be completely separate. For instance, with my cyclist, it could be that he can’t renew communication with his brother because they fought over their mother’s will, and his pride is at stake – or maybe he still thinks his brother is wrong. Then again, it might be a physical barrier connected with the café: he came into the café to get out of the storm, and now so much snow has fallen that it’s impossible to leave.

Of course, you could be really clever and do both: a physical barrier that becomes a metaphor for the psychological barrier underneath.

Once you have your barrier, the only thing remaining is to figure out how your character is going to overcome it – and the extent to which they’ll be successful. This is your plot. Your ‘what happens’.

And so the final task? Write it!

‘I guess I should be writing but I can’t think what to write about…’

Sound familiar?

Sometimes, it’s true, our brains are overflowing with ideas, and the only problem is how to get them all down on paper fast enough. But as most people will know, that isn’t always the case.

A few weeks ago, I posted 5 poetry prompts designed to generate poetic material by making language work to produce itself. Which is all very well and good if the ideas are already there, but sometimes it can just be useful to have someone to give you a nudge. So in this post, instead of suggesting an idea for a poem, I’m going to do even better than that: I’m going to suggest five.

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1 – Abstract Object

This one requires you to find an object – preferably one you find interesting in some way. It may be particularly tactile. It may be intricate and beautiful. It might be old and falling apart. It doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as it’s something you think you can use to write about. Go outside and rootle around your garden, or wander through the park till something catches your eye. If it’s raining / you don’t have a garden / it’s the weekend and the park is full of children, then find something inside your house. Pick a couple of objects, if you like, then you can decide which one to write about later.

Of course, you could just imagine the object. After all, I’m an entire internet away, and I’ll never know whether the object is actually there in front of you or not – but you’ll probably find this exercise easier if it is.

Once you have your object, spend a good few minutes exploring it. Look at the object from every angle. Think about what it feels like. Does it have a smell? Can you see the object’s history in its physical appearance at all? Does it tell a story? How do you hold it – if you hold it at all? Try to notice something about it that you wouldn’t notice at first glance. It might be useful to set yourself a timer (2 minutes? 3 minutes? 5? Whatever you feel comfortable with) and allow yourself to do nothing but focus on your object until the buzzer goes.

Now you’ve got to know your object, you can begin writing. The exercise is this:

Choose an abstract noun, and describe it as the object.

The easiest way to do this is to choose an emotion as your abstract noun. And the best way to think of the poem is in terms of metaphor. So, you might want to start your poem by saying your abstract noun is your object. E.g.

Love is a sheep skull.

Sorrow is a standard lamp.

Hatred is an acorn.

Loyalty is my grandmother’s wedding dress.

Desperation is a new biro.

Joy is a chipped plate.

Try to be as specific and physical as possible in your descriptions. Not everything will work with the abstract noun, but that’s ok – you can edit later. For now, you’re just writing. And the more physical description there is, the more rooted & grounded your poem will feel.

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2 – Praise

Our second exercise is to write an ode: a poem in praise of something.

This might sound fairly ordinary – but there’s a twist. After all, it’s easy to write a poem praising sunshine, or payday, or a person you love. (And let’s face it, those poems can also get kind of sacharine.)

Instead, write a poem praising something that’s normally looked down on. Something normally seen as inferior, or best kept out of society’s gaze. Something most people might not even notice – or if they did notice, wouldn’t give much thought to.

If you’re stuck, try writing a poem in praise of one of these:

  • the shopping trolley in the canal
  • chewing gum on pavements
  • ugly babies
  • tumble dryer lint
  • the draught
  • empty beer bottles
  • stretch marks
  • peeling wallpaper
  • rising damp

We’re doing a number of things here. We’re treading new ground, speaking about an ordinary object in an unexpected way. We’re elevating the ordinary to the realm of the extraordinary. We’re forcing ourselves to think about something in a way that surprises us as well as the reader – a bit like the first exercise, we’re getting to know something well.

This could also be a good opportunity to practise writing in a different register, or tone. You may just want to write a descriptive poem about your subject, describing it in a positive way. But you may decide to write your poem addressing the subject, which may lead to you writing in a heightened register. Think: ‘O shopping trolley’.

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3 – Excavating the Cliché

This is another prompt that involves looking at things unexpectedly. It’s an exercise I use in workshops quite a lot, because it can be done at any level or in a number of different styles. It’s easy to adapt to a way in which you feel comfortable writing, while also challenging you to think outside the box.

For the prompt to work, you need to start with a cliché. I know, I know. Normally we’re told to avoid them like the plague. They’re ‘dead language’ – which means that we’re so familiar with them, we’ve stopped truly seeing the images inherent within them.

Example: I cried a river. 

We’re all familiar with this expression. It’s overused, to the extent that now we usually just see it as over-dramatic. What we no longer see is the inherent image of the tears flowing, so many it’s like a literal river. We know that’s what it means, but we don’t see the river in our mind’s eye. Instead we just see a person crying, potentially into a glass of wine.

So for this exercise, I would excavate that image. Mine it to its full depths, and write a poem about it. You cried a river? Ok. What kind of river? Was it a brook tinkling down the mountainside? Were there cataracts, and sheep drinking from its banks? Or was it the Ganges? Was it a slow brown ooze? Was it filled with people washing and praying? Were people cremated on the river of your tears? The richer you can be with this exercise, the better.

Looking for some clichés to get you started?

  • My love is deeper than the ocean.
  • I’m free as a bird.
  • My mind is a prison.
  • There are walls around my heart.
  • The wind whispered in the trees.
  • Her face lit up.
  • You are my sunshine.
  • We hammered out our differences.
  • Breaking the ice.
  • He threw a tantrum.
  • Her face fell.
  • Time flies.
  • Old as the hills.
  • Fit as a fiddle.

Remember, the more detailed you can make your image, the better – and the further it is from being a cliché.

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4 – Use Your Senses

Ok. We know this one. If you want to write well, you have to describe things using your senses. We were probably taught this at school, when we learned to do ‘descriptive writing’. Using the senses helps to bring the reader into the world of the poem, or the story, or the memoir, or whatever it is you’re writing. It places them there. It gets their neurons firing and they imagine themselves in that place or situation. It starts to create empathy.

So if we already know all this, why am I saying it here?

Partly, I’m saying it because, even though it’s something we know we should be doing, it’s surprising how often people forget about at least two of the senses, possibly even three or four. We’re generally pretty good at describing how things look. We may also be good at describing feel, or sounds. But a lot of the time we forget about smell, and about taste.

Which is crazy, when you think about it, as there’s tonnes of research linking the olfactory senses to memory, and memory is a goldmine for poetry.

So I want you to write a poem in which you smell or taste something. It can be something pleasant, or something not so pleasant. But try to make it something specific. So not just ‘pie’, but ‘blackberry pie’ – and not just ‘blackberry pie’ but ‘the blackberry pie your sister made on the first time in her new kitchen’.

Try writing the poem in the present tense (so you’re in the moment of smelling or tasting whatever it is), but try to also link it to memory in some way. It can be a real memory or an invented one, as long as it’s something ‘past’. Something that gives the poem an expanded sense of time.

(If you’re not sure what I mean by this, try looking at Louis Macneice’s Soap Suds or Kim Addonizio’s Wine Tasting.)

And, just as with the other exercises, try to be as detailed as possible.

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5 – Things Behaving Badly…

…or at least unexpectedly.

For the last prompt, I want you to give yourself free reign. Embrace the childlike. Remember that this is a poem, not a piece of journalism, and things can behave however you want them to.

So if you want to write a poem where buildings get up and walk away, you can do. Or if you want to write a poem where planets are coins dropped by the gods, or where all the birds leave and are replaced by flapping books, then go for it.

Whatever it is that takes your fancy, try to pick just one thing. So for example, you wouldn’t write a poem in which the world was flat as an LP and every time it orbited the record player everyone had to jump the needle AND where people outsourced their souls to computers. You’d pick one of those ideas (or, more likely, your own much better idea) and focus on that. So you’re sticking within the rules of your own unexpected world.

And again, try to be detailed. Be specific, and ground your poem in physical description. Use those senses. That way, whatever bizarre thing is happening in your poem, it will still retain a sense of realness.

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And that’s it! I hope you find these prompts useful for generating material. And if you get something from these prompts, but are struggling to take your initial ideas further, then feel free to mix and match these prompts with the 5 prompts on using words to generate more words. Good luck, and happy writing!

 

March has gone by in a whirlwind. A literal whirlwind at times, as a storm blew in at the start of the month and I had to force myself to leave the house. But also, obviously, a metaphorical whirlwind. And that’s just because there’s been so much going on.

(I’m going to keep this post deliberately personal and non-political, because I feel like crying every time I watch the news at the moment, either from anger, frustration or despair.)

In many ways, for me, it’s been a month of contrasts: from the start of the month, where I had days on end of not leaving the house, of burying myself in admin work at the kitchen table and drinking and endless supply of cups of tea; to the second half of the month, where my feet have barely touched the ground, and left me hopping from home to Manchester to Cork to London to NYC! So I guess it’s hardly surprising that I look up from my desk and suddenly it’s practically April. Not that April won’t be its own brand of exciting, to, of course…

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A few good things:

The great big trip: I’ve been talking about this one for a while, but it’s finally here: the great big Poetry Trip to America! I’m currently in New York (actually, I’m currently in New Jersey because it’s much cheaper to stay just across the river rather than in Manhattan itself), where I’m researching my collection-in-progress any New York Public Library, thanks to a Developing Your Creative Practice Grant from the Arts Council. (If you haven’t applied for one yet, let this be your incentive to go for it!)

I’m nearly at the end of my week in NYC, but after that it’s up to New Hampshire (by means of an excruciatingly long Greyhound bus trip) for a three week residency at MacDowell Colony, where I’m planning to put all this research to good use by drafting plenty of poems – and keeping my fingers crossed there are a couple of OK ones among them.

And speaking of poems…

Assembly Instructions: This month, my new pamphlet, Assembly Instructions, was published by Southword Editions, as a result of its winning the Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. I headed over to Ireland for Cork International Poetry Festival, where the pamphlet was launched, where I read alongside Regina O’Melveny and Breda Spaight, whose Southwod pamphlets were also being launched.

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Gretna: From Ireland, I hot-footed it to London in time for the Marchland Arms season at Ye Olde Mitre: a sixteenth century pub in Holborn. There, I saw Northern: a series of three performance pieces concerned with the borderlands between England and Scotland. One of these was Gretna: a semi-dramatised version of a series of poems I’d written about Gretna Green, performed by two actors and including music from folk musician Lora Watson. It was fascinating seeing the poems being brought to life by other people, and experiencing them with the added level of such beautiful music.

School workshops: Although most of the early part of the month was taken up with pre-trip admin, I also managed to run a couple of school workshops – including one on World Book Day. I didn’t get to dress up as a book character, unfortunately (which is a shame, because I love a good excuse for fancy dress), but it was such a wonderful day, filled with some amazing poetry crated by the young people, and I came away with a bag of handmade cards and intricately folded letters which the Creative Writing Club had made to present me with on my visit.

The National Trust: I also spent a slightly soggy day being filmed reading a couple of poems for the National Trust. These were both commissions for the National Trust’s Tables Turned project, which also saw me writing a poem inspired by a workshop with a group of former miners in Whitehaven last year. Unlike the miners’ poem, however, these two new ones were both filmed outside: one in the Borrowdale valley, and the other in Carlisle overlooking the River Eden. Let’s just say I had a lot of drying out to do on the drive home.

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The month in books:

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I haven’t read as much as planned this month (do I ever? Still testing myself at the new year’s resolution…), since I’ve been spending almost every spare moment trying to catch up on all the admin I didn’t do while I was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in February, as well as trying to get ahead with all the admin that I won’t get done while I’m away in the US in March and April. So maybe it’s natural that the books have got pushed a little to one side?

But the good thing about being away, and about being here solely for the purpose of poetry, is that now I’m able to push them back into the centre a bit more. I’ve been rocking up to Bryant Park in NYC an hour or so before the library opens each morning, purely so I can spend some time reading before I start the day’s research. (Oh all right, it’s also an excuse to get coffee and pastry – but those things just go so well with books!)

  • The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr
  • Salt on Your Tongue, by Charlotte Runcie
  • other gods, by Regina O’Melveny
  • The Untimely Death of My Mother’s Hens, by Breda Spaight
  • Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich
  • Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine

The month in pictures:

 

 

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed me posting photos of a sleek blue chapbook with a bold yellow title. This is my new pamphlet! Hurrah!

Assembly Instructions is published by Southword, after it won the Munster Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. It’s a slim & visually stylish volume (thanks, lovely Southword folks!) about how we put ourselves together, and the formative experiences that make us who we are.

AVAILABLE TO BUY HERE

Although it technically came out a couple of weeks ago (and is available on Amazon here, and will soon be available directly from Southword here), I’ve only just got my hands on them. 

This week, I was invited to Cork International Poetry Festival, to launch the pamphlet at a reading. I read in the Grand Parade library, at a free event alongside two other poets, also launching chapbooks: Brenda Spaight and Regina O’Mulveny. Sometimes, I feel as though pamphlets or chapbooks published by the same press, or discovered through the same competition, can have a sort of homogeneity to them – but it was a lovely event, with a really interesting combination of voices, each of which felt very different to each other. 

In fact, it was a lovely festival overall. I almost want to say that everyone should go and enjoy Cork International Poetry Festival – but then if everyone descended on it, it might lose some of that intimate feel that it currently has. Because although the festival is international (and very much so, pulling an impressive list of participants from Ireland, the U.K., the rest of Europe and beyond), it feels like a small, friendly community. A well-kept secret that everybody is sort of in on. During the three days that I was there, I met some lovely people, and discovered some incredible poetry. What a wonderful festival to be a part of! 

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I was born in the morning

slithered out of the cut in my mother,
a thing no bigger than a bacon rind

and squalling. There was something
of the nymph about you
, she said later,

a dragonfly lifted too soon from the lake.
She watched my birth

in the sheet-metal ceiling,
her other self a storm cloud

brewing at dusk, a small fire
far too far from the beach.

When my mother unfurled her body,
her arms were scrubbed toufh

and she caught me. All through my life
she has rocked my reflection,

as we head for the unchartered deep.

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‘I was born in the morning’ is taken from Assembly Instructions. It was first published as part of a group of poems shortlisted for the 2018 Manchester Poetry Prize.

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I’m sitting in the back corner of Brew Brothers café in Kendal. It’s just after 5pm on a Friday night. Outside, the street is full of people gearing up for a big night out, or trudging home after a difficult week at work – but in here, it’s warm and bright. There’s a mellow buzz of conversation against the backdrop of music: a mix of people meeting up for post-work coffees, or a pre-dinner glass of wine. One or two other people also have laptops. For me, at this moment in time, there’s just the right level of background stimulus to provide a productive atmosphere.

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

I haven’t always written in cafes. When I was a student, I found it next to impossible – too easy to be distracted by what was going on around me. But since then, I’ve started to lean towards it more and more. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe something to do with how our brains change as we get older, or the fact I have exponentially more admin than I did as a student, trying to distract me from the creative stuff. I still do the bulk of my writing sitting at my kitchen table – but when your writing space is the same as your living space, sometimes it can be good to take a break.

The seat I’ve chosen in this cafe is significant. It’s in the corner, with a view of the rest of the café. Separate from everyone else, not overlooked, and yet with a view. The other people with laptops have taken up similar seats.

There’s an evolutionary theory that most humans would plump for these sorts of positions, away from the door but with a view of the rest of the room. Prehistorically, it means we were far enough into the cave to be safe and warm, yet able to see the entrance in case a predator should approach. Calm, yet alert.

Like a lot of evolutionary theory, this is probably largely guesswork, but it imitates the state I tend to occupy when I write, halfway between relaxed and on edge. Or, as X-Men: First Class would have it, ‘somewhere between anger and serenity’.

There’s something about being in a café that provides this carefully balanced feeling. But, as with all balances, it can quickly tip one way or the other. I have to be picky not only with the seat I select, but with the café that it’s in. Somewhere with ambient noise, but not too much of it. Somewhere bustling, but not too full. And above all, somewhere with good coffee and cake.

MY TOP 5 CUMBRIAN CAFES FOR WRITING IN

Of course, there are downsides to writing in cafes as well. One is that you’re always dependent on it not getting too busy. Another is that, really, there’s only so much time you can spend in a café, unless you want to spend your money on buying your lunch and a lot of coffees there. (I mean, it’s probably still cheaper than renting an office space if you’re someone who can’t write at home.)

And for some people, any noise while writing is something of an abhorrence. We all have our different practices. The important thing is finding what works for you, or for this particular project, or even for this particular scene or poem or whatever.

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.

This is one of a number of pieces of advice that I sometimes hand out in creative writing workshops. It comes from the Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules, written by Sister Corita Kent (though often incorrectly attributed to John Cage). It’s a list of ten ‘rules’, which urge the writer/artist to develop a work ethic, and to engage with the world around them.

Finding a place you trust is rule number one.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a café, a pub, your attic, or a park bench. I think the important thing, for me, is that it’s a place that allows for that feeling of intense focus that comes from being both calm and alert simultaneously. And then, once you’ve found it, you have to trust it.

A couple of years ago, I listened to Liz Lochhead being interviewed on Desert Island Discs. One of the songs she selected was Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Some Days There Just Ain’t No Fish’ – a 1947 song written by Bob Russell & Carl Sigman.

I’ve used a fishing metaphor on this blog before, when talking about submitting work to magazines & competitions, but it applies equally well to the actual creative process, too. The more often you sit down and try to write – the more often you cast your line – the more likely it is that inspiration will catch.

‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ – Picasso

Which is all very well and good, and a useful maxim for forcing yourself to write when you think you’re too tired / hungover / busy / distracted etc etc. But what about when there’s something deeper going on, that’s in some way blocking your creativity?

I’ve talked a little bit before about what I think are the different types of writers’ block: the ‘I don’t really fancy writing at the moment’ type, and the ‘there’s actually something major that I need to deal with in my mental health that is completely prohibiting me from writing’. (Clue: the first one is much easier to solve, and basically just requires discipline; the second one is much more tricky.)

So what do you do if you’re experiencing that second type of creative block? If you’re turning up to the writing desk / kitchen table / cafe / train commute every day with your notebook and pen, and it doesn’t help? If you’ve found a stack of writing exercises to work your way through, but nothing comes out right? If you’ve been keeping a writing routine for weeks, waiting for that inspiration to come and find you working, and yet you still feel blocked?

This is the sort of thing some writers have nightmares about. When I was younger, I used to be one of them – I saw writers’ block as some mythical disease, like a witch’s curse that could descend on me at any time and leave me unable to string a sentence together. But the truth is, as I’ve got older, I’ve learned a bit more about my own brain, and about how my mind works. And I’ve learned that writers’ block isn’t so much a disease as a symptom of something else.

About three years ago, I started to experience some pretty hefty anxiety. I say ‘started to’, but it had sort of been there all along. I just hadn’t been able to recognise it for what it was – partly because I just didn’t know enough about anxiety, or about my own brain, but also because up until then it had always been a kind of low level burn, like the sound of a waterfall, always there in the background and sometimes louder than others, but never enough to make me stop and pay attention for very long. Then, at the start of 2016, there came a flood, and suddenly I was drowning in it.

For six months, I barely wrote anything. I tried. I really, really tried. I’d just left one of my two part-time jobs to give myself more time for writing, but whenever I sat down and tried to write something, it felt like someone had put a cement mixer in my brain.

Eventually, I went to the doctors, and refused the offer of pills (I knew that wasn’t what I wanted, and while they are absolutely the right course for some people, I knew that I wanted talking therapy instead). I was referred for therapy – or rather, I was given a piece of paper with a phone number on it and told to refer myself. I never rang the number.

(This isn’t a blog post about how the NHS, for all its strengths and qualities, is hugely lacking when it comes to supporting mental health – though if it were, I might point out how I told the GP that the very reason it had taken me several months even to go to him was because my anxiety kept preventing me, and so this tactic of asking me to jump through that appointment-making help-seeking hoop again was highly flawed. But that’s another argument.)

After 7-and-a-bit months, I got over my period of anxiety. No, that’s a lie. I didn’t ‘get over it’ (hateful phrase) – but the flood-rush subsided and the waterfall went back to its normal level, and the words began to return. A number of things helped me with this, particularly friends and books. I read an awful lot during that time, and although I didn’t realise it then, this reading was feeding my creativity. I might not have been producing anything, but the creative process was still going on, under the surface, building my understanding of story, of language, of creative thought.

But the real turning point came that summer, when I travelled to America to do an enormous road trip up the west coast with two friends. We spent three weeks on the road (as well as a week or so either side and my friend’s house in Oregon), and it threw me out of myself in exactly the way that my brain needed at the time.

In his book, The Idle Traveller, Dan Kieran talks about travel as the process of forcing your brain to pay attention. When we’re surrounded by the unfamiliar, our survival mode kicks in, and we’re forced to notice everything around us. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is about assessing the new environment for potential dangers, but it also serves the mind creatively. We have to be switched on. We have to exist in the moment, and to really pay attention to what’s around us. In other words, we have to be mindful.

While travelling up the west coast of America, we stopped in San Francisco. Sitting on a bench on Pier 39, sharing fish & chips with the two wonderful friends on either side of me, listening to the buzz of people and seagulls and the distant slap of water against the docks, I burst into tears. They were happy tears. For the first time in over half a year, I felt happy. Completely and utterly happy. I was able to be absolutely 100% in the moment: that almost meditative state that’s so important for mental health and for the creative process.

That evening in our AirBnB, I jotted down a couple of lines for a poem. Back at home a few weeks later, I started writing the poems that will hopefully form my first full-length poetry collection. A couple of months after that, I wrote the first scene of my novel.

So what’s the lesson here? I’m not trying to tell you how to cope with anxiety or any kind of mental ill-health, because all our minds work in different ways, so that’s going to be different for everybody. But what it taught me is that, whenever I feel blocked in my writing (as in, really truly blocked, not just procrastinating because checking twitter is easier), there are things I can do. I can read. I can go for a walk. I can travel. Not necessarily a long way – even a day trip somewhere local will do, as long as it’s somewhere I don’t know well, somewhere that I have to be fully present in.

So I guess the lesson, if there has to be a lesson, is that it’s ok not to be writing all the time. There are so many other things we can do to feed our creativity. Whether we’re writing a poem every day or just giving our minds a fallow period – as long as we’re stimulating our minds, that creative process never really stops.

And although at times you get a messful
Other days are less successful
Some days there just ain’t no fish

I arrive in Grasmere on one of the coldest nights of the year. The stars are already growing crisp and cold in the sky, and the car park is an ice sheet worthy of Torvill and Dean. Cut to three weeks later, and I’m outside in the sunshine overheating in my t-shirt and jeans. My residency at the Wordsworth Trust has been varied to say the least.

I was living on the top floor of one of tall the Victorian houses in Town End, owned by the Wordsworth Trust. (There was some discussion over whether we were calling this my ‘garret’ or my ‘penthouse’, which mostly seemed to depend on how cold the weather was being at the time.) From my bedroom, I could see a sliver of the edge of the lake, and the fells rising beyond. From the bathroom, I could see Dove Cottage itself.

The residency lasted for four weeks, which seemed to go unbelievably quickly – perhaps because there was a lot to fit in during that time. Some of this was work connected with the residency: I ran poetry workshops in 5 schools, gave a poetry reading at the Wordsworth Trust itself, and did two reading / workshop events with other poetry groups connected with the Trust. Then there were the other things, which weren’t a structured part of the residency in the same way, but which I was desperate to fit into my four weeks: the walks, the visits to Grasmere’s wonderful cafes, the many writing-based chats with Polly Atkin & Will Smith (not to mention sampling Will’s delicious baking). And of course, the poetry.

As with most things, before I started the residency, I had a plan. I would write a number of poems during my stay in Grasmere, and read a whole host of poetry collections.

Also as with most things, it didn’t quite work out the way I planned. Some of this was because of all the other things that ended up being factored into the residency weeks, but some of it was also just because I ended up changing my practice once I arrived on site.

Part of the beauty of the residency was the lack of pressure to produce anything. For the first time in a long time, I could just play with poetry, and experiment without having to necessarily complete anything. This might sound counterproductive, but it was actually an enormous creative luxury. I started to think about it like an artist’s sketchbook. Rather than forcing myself to create full watercolours, I could create sketches, ideas and studies for poems.

At the moment, most of these are still sitting in my notebook, waiting for me to do something with them – or not, depending on how each idea grows or diminishes over time. It’s a hugely invigorating feeling, to know that my notebook is positively bristling with keys that could unlock poems. It’s the kind of concentrated exploration that I never normally get time for as an artist.

I may not have come out of the residency with a huge body of poems as I was expecting, but what I gained was something more: a chance to focus on the practice, and to connect with the part of myself that all the poetry stems from.

A few good things:

Frankenstein:

One of the perks of the residency was getting to engage with some of the Wordsworth Trust’s extensive collections. There’s a whole host of incredible things in their archives, but one of the things that most fascinated me was the first edition copy of Frankenstein.

It lives in the Reading Room in the Jerwood Centre at the Wordsworth Trust, behind a glass door with hundreds of other books, in its own little non-descript-looking cardboard box, with FRANKENSTEIN scrawled on the side in pencil. Appearances can be deceiving, however, because not only is this box custom-made to fit the book exactly, but inside is a first edition of what, for me, is one of the most fascinating novels in the English language: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Getting to hold this – to carefully unwrap it from its cardboard box and then from the older box inside that, and finally to pick up and open one of the volumes – was easily one of the highlights of the residency. My debut novel, My Name is Monster, is in part inspired by Frankenstein. Holding that first edition brought it right into the present for me. It felt as though I were in conversation with Mary Shelley and with the original text across the decades – part of a literary heritage through prose as well as through poetry.

Manchester Poetry Prize shortlisting:

The night before I arrived at the Wordsworth Trust to begin my residency, I spent the evening in Manchester, where I was shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize! It was a really great night, with a reading in a room filled (as you might expect) with incredible writers – on the shortlists, on the judging panel and in the audience. The winner was Molly Underwood, for a truly beautiful selection of poems based around books of the bible. You can read the full shortlist here.

Plough Short Poem Prize:

And continuing the theme of prizes – during my Wordsworth Trust residency, I learned that my poem received 3rd place in the Plough Short Poem Prize, judged by Pascale Petit. You can read the poem here.

The residency month in books:

As with writing, I ended up not reading as many books as I expected to this month. What I did get a chance to do, though, was to read poetry in-depth. I rarely get the time to sit and really pour myself into a collection of poetry: to sit and read a poem, then put the book down and think about it for a while, then to pick the book back up and read another one. This kind of slow, thoughtful, deep reading isn’t generally conducive to the hectic freelance lifestyle. But during a residency, particularly when the weather’s beautiful and you can walk up a hill and stop every few minutes to read a poem? Perfect!

  • Tibor Fischer, The Collector Collector
  • Zaffar Kunial, Us
  • Sally Rooney, Mr Salary
  • Suzannah Evans, Near Future
  • Haruki Murakami, Birthday Girl
  • Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
  • Kaveh Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf

The residency month in pictures:

Recently, I wrote a blog post sharing five fiction prompts, to help you get to know your character. In the interests of balance, I thought I would write a post with some poetry prompts as well.

None of these prompts suggests a subject for a poem, or tells you what to write about. (I may do this kind of prompt post in the future, but I’ll see how it goes.) Instead, each of these prompts is a way of generating material using the language itself.

Language makes up the bricks and mortar of our work. It’s what allows us to build. So, to continue this possibly-a-bit-overplayed analogy: these prompts won’t tell you what kind of house to build, but they will help you create more (and hopefully better) bricks.

Ready? Got your notebook handy?

Then I’ll begin.

Poetry Cairn, Lakes Alive Festival

1 – Freewrite

Different writers use freewriting in different ways, but for me it’s a bit like practising scales on an instrument, or like doing stretches before a race. I tend to freewrite for 5-10 minutes at the start of a writing morning / writing day, just to clear away the cobwebs and warm up the writing muscles. Sometimes, the thing I write becomes the basis for a poem, and sometimes not. I doesn’t really matter either way; the point is the writing of it.

So what is freewriting?

The idea is that you write without thinking too hard about it. You set yourself a timer (3-5 is probably a good amount, particularly if you’re new to freewriting), and you start writing. You don’t stop writing until the timer goes.

It doesn’t really matter what you write, and it certainly isn’t supposed to be a poem, or anything ‘poem shaped’. The aim is to just get words down on the page without worrying whether they’re any good or not. You can’t stop to censor yourself, so you just keep going. If you get stuck, write the first thing that comes into your head – even if that’s ‘I don’t know what to write about’.

The hardest bit about freewriting is working out how to start, so it can be useful to have a stock list of phrases or first lines as a jumping off point. Some of mine are:

  • I want to give you…
  • There was something about…
  • Do you remember…
  • What happened was…
  • That was the day…
  • It tasted of…
  • My body is…

Or another good exercise, when you’re feeling particularly creative, is to come up with a list of 5-10 first lines you could use for poems that you haven’t written yet, and then use them as the starting points for freewrites – one a day until you run out of first lines, and have to come up with another list.

You can use a line from someone else’s poem as a prompt, but of course if the freewrite does turn into a poem in its own right, make sure you change your first line, or credit the original writer.

Freewriting can be useful in two ways: one is to reach past all the day-to-day fluff that clutters our brains so much of the time, and allow you to access the edge of the dream state that exists just below the conscious mind; and the other is that you actually end up writing down all of that day-to-day fluff and clutter, but at least that clears it out of the way ready for you to move onto some other writing afterwards. Either way, you’ll probably come out with some words / phrases / ideas that you weren’t expecting.

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I bought some fancy coloured gel pens for editing

2 – Phrases Breed Phrases

Sometimes, you write a phrase that won’t let you rest until you’ve written another phrase. I don’t mean those instances where you get so caught on the excitement and inspiration of writing that you can’t bear to put your pen down even though you’re desperate for the loo – though those moments can be very useful as well. Instead, I’m talking about the phrases that demand a certain syntax, which in itself demands that you write more in order for the sentence to work as a grammatically correct sentence.

For example:

Even though the dark was coming in.

is not a complete sentence in its own right. It’s only half of a thought, and as such it leads us asking questions, wanting to know more. It’s an idea that demands to be completed: Even though the dark was coming in… what?

Even though the dark was coming in, I couldn’t leave the silence of the lake.

Now I’m not saying that’s a great line, but it’s certainly fuller than it was a paragraph ago. The syntax of ‘even though’ has forced me to add a second part to the sentence, which suddenly doesn’t just contain the images of darkness and of a drawing nearer, but also contains a lake, a silence, and me as the speaker of the poem. The picture is starting to build.

Good beginnings for this kind of enforced building up of a sentence are:

  • Even though…
  • And if…
  • Because…
  • Before…
  • After…
  • Once…
  • Under…
  • Despite…

Each of these are words you can use to begin a sentence, that force you to take the sentence somewhere new part way along. And if you want to get even more mileage out of your words? Then you can repeat your start words to build up a bigger picture. E.g.

Even though the dark was coming in, I couldn’t leave the silence of the lake.
And even though the air was full of midges, I sat without twitching.
And even though someone was calling me, far away, from across the fields, I pretended not to hear.

These might not all make it into a final poem, but it’s a way of getting words and thoughts on the page.

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writing prompt - Katie Hale

3 – Repeat Yourself. Repeat Yourself.

Repeating yourself might sound like a cheat’s way of generating material for a poem, but it can actually be incredibly useful in providing a structure and a music to a poem. This can be repeating an entire line, as a kind of chorus returning us to the same idea, or it can be a word or words, woven through the poem like a tapestry.

  • Repeat the start of the sentence (anaphora): e.g. I went down the stairs. I went alone. I went because I wasn’t afraid of the dark.
  • Repeat the end of the sentence (epistrophe): e.g. The room was old. Everything about it felt old. Even the darkness felt old.
  • Repeat the end of one sentence at the start of the next (anadiplosis): e.g. I went down the stairs. The stairs creaked in the dark and the dark swallowed the torch beam.
  • Repeat a single word or its derivatives (polyptoton): e.g. The room was old and dark. In the darkness, I felt my fears darken.
  • Repeat the sentence structure (isocolon): e.g. The room was old and dark. My torch was weak and flickering.

This is a great exercise to use for generating material. Do it with your writing hat on, and leave your editing hat well and truly to the side. Don’t worry about whether you’re repeating things too much – just write and use it as a way to discover thoughts and images you didn’t know were hiding in your brain.

Afterwards (and only afterwards), you can put your editing / shaping hat on, and heed this word of caution: repeating anything has to be handled with great care, particularly in poems, which tend to be short enough that repeating any word anywhere is noticeable and so has to be deliberate. Make sure you’re repeating something for a reason, not just because it’s an easier way of making the page look fuller. Is the repetition adding something to your poem? Meaning? Rhythm? Music? Connection between apparently disparate ideas? You don’t necessarily need to be able to specify exactly what each repetition is adding, but you have to be able to feel it.

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writing prompt - Katie Hale

4 – A Brave New Word

Words have a wonderful way of suggesting other words – a bit like with the freewriting prompt, or the phrases breeding phrases prompt, above. Those two prompts both work on a syntactical level, and speak to our human need to complete and organise; we have an incomplete sentence, and we force ourselves to finish it. However, this next prompt works in much finer detail, on the level of individual sounds.

The first step is to pick some words you would like to include in your poem. These can be anything, but try to make them words that you like the sound of, and preferably words you wouldn’t normally use in your poetry. For example, for a while I had a tendency to put ‘meagre’ into everything I wrote, so I wouldn’t be allowed to choose ‘meagre’ for this exercise, as it’s already too heavily placed in my active writing vocabulary. We all know those words that we keep coming back to – our own little writing tics that we can’t seem to shake. Stay away from them – for this exercise at least. Find something more unusual to you – a new word you want to try out. Flick through books, if you like. See what kind of vocabulary other writers use. Choose one or two of their words (though not too many from each writer, or it’ll make it too easy to slip into attempting that writer’s voice as well).

My words might be: shotgun, fascinator, primal, staccato, grudge, cormorant, startle

Don’t worry – you don’t necessarily have to put all of those into the same poem. Although you can do, if that’s the sort of challenge you want to set yourself. Instead, you’re going to focus on the sounds. For each word, you’re going to build up a sentence that contains more of the same consonantal sounds.

Let’s take ‘shotgun’. The word ‘shotgun’ contains 4 consonantal sounds: ‘sh’, ‘t’, ‘g’ and ‘n’. So you might want to make a list of words that include those sounds: nag, gin, gaunt, shatter, tosh, shutters, tiger, grain, grant, train, shunt, gauche, hunt

So your sentence could be: The tiger was gaunt and hunting, but the shotgun was a train shunting through the trees, shattering the jungle.

You’ll notice the use of words that weren’t on my original list – particularly ‘trees’ and ‘jungle’. That’s ok. After all, we don’t want a completely homogenous sound world in our poems, and the sentence needs to make sense as well. Having said that, ‘trees’ pretty much belongs in this soundscape anyway, with that ‘t’, and the ‘s’ that sort of speaks to the existing ‘sh’.

And as for ‘jungle’? Well, that definitely belongs.

Why? Consonants have pairings and groupings that give them a similar music. This is easiest to spot in the voiced and unvoiced versions of consonants, such as ‘b’ and ‘p’. Try saying these two letters. You’ll notice that one of them (b) uses your vocal chords, while the other (p) is composed of nothing but air. That’s because they are, in a sense, the same letter, but formed either using or not using the voice.

The same is true of ‘c’ and ‘g’. And ‘t’ and ‘d’. And also ‘ch’ and ‘j’ – which is why I said that ‘jungle’ belongs in the sentence above: ‘j’ belongs in the same sound world as ‘ch’, and ‘ch’ is not a million miles away from ‘sh’ (the only difference being the hard beginning on the ‘ch’ sound as opposed to the ‘sh’).

So what does this mean? Effectively, it just gives you a bigger sound world to play with. Suddenly, the word ‘shotgun’ lets you play with more consonantal sounds: ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘j’, ‘t’, ‘d’, g’, ‘c’, ‘k’, ‘ck’, ‘n’ and ‘m’.

So my list of words might include: danger, ticking, marked, shake, dodge, juggernaut, decode, game, knocking, cudgel, untangle, conglomerate, tug, ghost, gamut, mango, teach, crèche, niche, manchego, jumping, imagine, dawn, need, meadow… The list goes on and on.

Some consonantal sounds that go together:

  • b / p
  • c / g / k / ck / qu / x
  • d / t
  • f / v
  • h
  • j / ch / sh
  • l / r / w / y
  • m / n
  • s / z

Play around with these, using the sounds within a single word to create a sentence within the same musical soundworld. Often, this will force you to put words and images together that surprise you – and the added bonus is that it nearly always sounds beautiful and musical.

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Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5 – Challenges

This is a technique I use a lot when I’m working in primary schools, as it keeps children on their toes during the writing process, and it gives them something to work towards if they’re struggling for ideas. As with many of the exercises I do with children, I find that it can also be fun and challenging for adults, too. It’s a good exercise to use when you’re freewriting / jotting down ideas for a poem, as a way of forcing yourself to include images you wouldn’t ordinarily have thought of, or a way of taking your thoughts in new directions.

Essentially, you challenge yourself to include something in your poem. You might want to choose 3 of the following, and challenge yourself to include them in your next freewrite / your next poem:

  • an insect
  • some sort of water
  • a landscape feature
  • something made from wood
  • a municipal building
  • a plant
  • something dead
  • something alive
  • some kind of weather
  • an organ (bodily or musical – it’s up to you)
  • a piece of furniture
  • a bird

You can include these in a literal way in your poem (e.g. a grasshopper was announcing the evening), or you can use them to form your imagery (e.g. my heart was a grasshopper in the uncertain grass of my chest).

The trick with all of them is to try to be specific. So if you choose ‘water’ as one of your challenges, don’t actually use the word ‘water’, but something like ‘puddle’ or ‘dripping tap’ or ‘river’. Even better, be specific about the type of puddle, or dripping tap, or river. Is it a clear stream tinkling down the mountainside in summer? Or is it a gushing river, brown, full of silt and swollen with too much rain?

Use these challenges to force yourself to think outside the normal bounds of your creative comfort zone, and to generate imagery.

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And those are the five. Notebook at the ready – and good luck with your writing!

Let’s not beat about the bush: we live in a time when funding for the arts is getting harder and harder to come by. Libraries are under threat, and creativity is increasingly disappearing from the school curriculum. Having said that, we are also living through an economic boom when it comes to the creative industries. So while on the surface it may feel as though opportunities for writers are few and far between, there are still plenty of opportunities to throw your hat into the ring.

In fact, there are so many opportunities, that last year I aimed to submit 100 applications in a year. I managed 87, which still barely scratched the surface of the opportunities that were available to me.

100 Submissions in a Year: notes on goals and rejection

Of course, most (if not all) of these opportunities are highly competitive. Which means that any writer (no matter how talented, no matter how successful) is going to submit a lot of unsuccessful applications. This isn’t necessarily a comment on the writer’s ability; particularly when judges have a lot of submissions / applications to sift through (literally hundreds or thousands sometimes), all kinds of other factors come into play. What the judge’s individual interests are. What they had for breakfast. Whether they need a wee. What they watched on telly the night before. How recently they argued with their spouse.

Dealing with so-called ‘rejection’

All these things are totally beyond a writer’s control. But does that mean you should stop submitting? Of course not! Because you never know – next time your work might catch the right judge at the perfect moment, and you get a lovely ‘congratulations’ email into your inbox.

So what can I apply for?

The arts world is constantly changing. As I’m sure many of us aware from the doom-and-gloom surrounding arts funding, opportunities and funding streams are disappearing all the time. Then again, new ones are always arriving on the scene as well, to the extent that it can be difficult to keep track of what opportunities are out there.

I’ll write another post sometime about how I manage my submissions, and how I keep track of opportunities I can apply to / applications I’m waiting to hear back on. But for now, I want to focus not so much on the individual opportunities themselves, but on where to look for them.

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1: Arts Council England

The Arts Council is one of the first places I will look if I’m searching for funding – not just for writing, but for any artform. They have a number of funds you can apply for, but the two main ones are probably their Project Grants (for outward-facing, publicly engaged projects), and their Developing Your Creative Practice Fund (which, as the name suggests, funds artists to develop their creative practice in some way).

Arts Council England (ACE) only funds artists / writers / projects based in England, but there are equivalents if you’re based in other parts of the UK: Creative Scotland / Arts Council of Wales / Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

The Arts Council also runs Arts Jobs and Arts News: a listings service for arts related job offers and industry news. These can be viewed on the Arts Council’s website, or you can sign up to weekly emails and have relevant listings arrive in your inbox on a Sunday afternoon. It’s free, and most England-based arts organisations will list opportunities and jobs on here, so it’s worth signing up to.

As well as providing their own funding streams and listings, the Arts Council has a list of other sources of funding for arts projects. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start if you’re looking for a way to fund a project.

Note: a lot of these funds require you to be an organisation to apply. This doesn’t mean that they’re inaccessible for individual artists / writers, though. It just means that whatever your project is, you have to work with an organisation to bring it into being.

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2 – Regional writing organisations

As well as funding bodies that cover the larger regions (England / Scotland / Wales / Northern Ireland), there are also dedicated writing organisations that cover sections of the UK. Mine is New Writing North. As the name suggests, New Writing North provide opportunities open to the whole of the north of England, including the Northern Writers’ Awards, which awards hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of funding to writers annually.

As well as funding, they also provide publicity opportunities for writers through schemes such as Read Regional, which gets local authors into regional libraries. They send out a weekly e-news sharing opportunities and news from regional writers.

Google your area to find your own regional writing organisation.

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3 – The British Council

From local to further afield: the British Council works to keep cultural conversations between the UK and other countries. As such, they often have opportunities for artists (including writers) that involve some kind of overseas travel. Some of these are for arts organisations, or for arts professionals who are not artists in their own right, but they also have callouts for artists, and it’s worth checkout out their Arts Opportunities page from time to time.

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4 – The Society of Authors

The Society of Authors is the writers’ union. They provide all kinds of support for writers, including grants for work in progress, and their annual prizes for both published and unpublished work.

If you’re a member, you also get all kinds of benefits, including legal advice, support with things like contracts, and money off books.

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5 – NAWE

NAWE stands for National Association of Writers in Education – but even if you don’t work in education in any way, you can still take advantage of The Writers’ Compass, which brings together NAWE’s professional development programme with the advice, listings and opportunities on their website.

One particularly useful part of this is their Events & Opportunities page, where you can filter opportunities by jobs, funding, events, competitions & submissions, mentoring & coaching, and retreats.

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6 – BBC Writers’ Room

The BBC Writers’ Room is particularly useful if you’re a script-writer, whether that’s for stage, screen or radio – although they do occasionally post opportunities that are open to all types of writers. Even better news is that their policy is only to post opportunities that are free to enter, so you’ll never have to pay an application fee for one of these.

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7 – ResArtis

If it’s writing residencies you’re searching for, then you could do a lot worse than starting with ResArtis.

The site lists all kinds of residencies, including the sort that lure you in by saying anyone can apply, but then mention that they come with an extortionate residency fee. In these cases, what you’re getting is often the equivalent of an AirBnB, but with a ‘writing retreat’ label on it that pushes the cost up exponentially, so it pays to be careful.

However, they do also list some very well respected residencies, including those that just provide accommodation and time to write, as well as some that pay you to go and live somewhere and work on your creative art. Because the site lists so many residency opportunities, finding the ones that are most appropriate for you does take some filtering. I’d recommend sitting down one evening with a big glass of wine, and exploring what the site has to offer.

Note: unlike with the BBC Writers’ Room, a lot of opportunities posted on here do require an application fee, which is another reason for making sure you’ve read the fine print.

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8 – The National Poetry Library website

As you’d expect, this one is really for poets. Mostly, I use their website to keep up to date with poetry competitions and upcoming deadlines. It lists competitions for poets at all stages of their writing development, from smaller competitions that seem to cater for emerging writers, to big ones like the National Poetry Competition. As with any listing service, it requires you to decide for yourself which are the most appropriate for you to enter.

The website also has advice for emerging poets, as well as a round-up of the UK’s major and independent poetry publishers, and a list of magazines where you could send your work.

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9 – Other listings

As well as the National Poetry Library, there are other places that regularly list competitions and submissions opportunities.

  • Creative Writing Ink has a competitions page, with regularly updated listings. As with the Poetry Library, these competitions vary in terms of size and prestige.
  • Dublin-based writer Angela T Carr posts an extensive list of competition & submission opportunities on her website at the start of each month.
  • The Poetry Society runs a number of their own competitions, which they list on their website. They also have an events listing.
  • If you want a good way of finding journals & magazines that publish your sort of writing, look at the acknowledgments sections in poetry collections & short story collections. If a writer who is stylistically similar in some way has had a piece of work accepted by a journal, then there’s a chance the editor might like your writing as well.

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10 – Google

I know it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people tell me they hadn’t thought of googling writing opportunities. Every so often, I will spend an evening in front of the fire, googling things like ‘artist in residence opportunities’ or ‘poetry competitions’ or ‘writing residency’, just to search out any of those things that might have slipped through the net of the listings. Sometimes, this will come to nothing, but every so often an opportunity will come to light, which will make it all worth while.

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Good luck with seeking out those opportunites, and fingers crossed for those emails that start with the word ‘congratulations’!

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Have I missed anywhere?
If there’s somwhere you go to seek out opportunities,
pop it in the comments below.

 

Writing is largely a solitary task. Sometimes, we spend so much time wrapped inside our own brains, that it can be useful to get a nudge from someone else.

This post consists of five prompts for writing fiction. The focus: getting to know your character.

Unless we’re writing something that’s largely biographical, we can’t be expected to fully know and understand our characters the moment we sit down to write anything. The connection between author and character is like any relationship: it grows and develops over time. Every time you write, you get to know them a little better. They become a little more real.

The following prompts are not necessarily intended to become part of a novel – although of course they may do. They’re more like dates, or date ideas. Places to take your character so you can gaze into their eyes and get to know them better.

Bookcase bookshop, Carlisle

1 – Twenty questions

The first prompt is basically the first date. It’s about getting to know your character at a fairly surface level – the sorts of things you might find out about another person if you’d only spent an hour or so getting to know them.

The exact questions you ask are up to you, but don’t make them too heavy. Keep it light, for now. Things like, what’s your favourite colour? Or, what type of food do you hate? Do you have any brothers or sisters? Where do you live? Do you prefer books or films? That sort of thing.

Make a list of twenty questions, imagine you’re sitting your character down in front of you, and jot down the answers. Some these answers might be quite banal, and some may open interesting doors. Either way, you’ll have learned enough that, on the next date, you can start to dig deeper.

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2 – Something your character wears

What we choose to wear says a lot about who we are. Do we dress to impress? Or do we just throw on the first thing we see in the morning. Do we dress carefully, but cultivate a style that looks effortless and unconcerned? Do we spend a lot of money on designer clothes – and if so, is that something we can afford, or something we have to make sacrifices for? Do we take pride in only shopping from charity shops?

If we apply this to a fictional character, it very quickly becomes about more than just surface dressing. A character who spends a lot of time cultivating an eclectic style probably cares a lot what other people think of them, and wants to be seen as individual and independent. Dig a little deeper, and this might arise from a deep insecurity and a fear of being overlooked. A character who puts very little thought into their appearance may be extremely self-confident, and totally unconcerned by what other people think of them. Then again, they may in fact be so isolated that they believe there’s no point in caring about their appearance, as nobody else will. A character who refuses to buy clothes from charity shops may have a fear of being seen as poor, or they may be so admiring of their own body that they want only the most exclusive designer clothing to adorn it.

So what does your character wear?

It might help to focus on one particular item, which exemplifies the type of clothing they tend to wear. It could be their favourite item. It could be the thing they wear most often.

Whatever it is, describe it in as much detail as possible. Describe how it fits your character’s body. How do they feel when they wear it? How did they come to own it? How do other people see it? Get to know your character through what they wear.

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3 – An object your character owns

In the same way that we can learn a lot about a person by the things they wear, so we can learn things by the objects they own. Particularly, by the objects they hold dear.

Theoretically, we can learn from the everyday objects, such as what sort of bowls and plates and cups they have. Is it antique bone china? Does everything match? Is it plain white crockery from IKEA? If they’re quite clumsy, then they may own the remnants of multiple sets. If they own everyday crockery, alongside a more expensive set that they only use for certain guests, what does that say about the character and how they relate to those around them?

All of these things tell us something about the character. But I want to dig deeper. If we choose the right object, we can find out key details about who this person is. It’s a cliché perhaps, but clichés are clichés for a reason: what object would this character save from a fire?

It has to be an object (it can’t be a loved one or a pet), but other than that, anything goes. Describe the object. What is it? What is it like? What does it mean to them? If it helps (and it may do), write the scene where they save the object from the fire. How desperate are they to rescue it, and what’s driving that desperation?

Again, this scene doesn’t have to make it into the finished novel. This is just a date.

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4 – Something that happened before they were born

This prompt is all about putting your character in context. Finding out the ingredients that went into the melting pot of their personality. Obviously, a lot of things will have happened before your character was born. What we want is a key event: something that shaped their life, before they even existed.

This could be something straightforward, like their conception – how did their parents meet? Did they know each other well? Was the pregnancy intentional?

Alternatively, it could be something on a more global scale – a political event that shaped the society your character was born into.

Whether it’s something big or small, make it something that affects your character. Something where, had these events been different, your character’s world and probably their personality would have been different too.

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5 – Put your character in a tricky situation

This final prompt builds on the third one, which had your character desperately saving something from a fire. The theory here is much the same: that we discover a lot about what drives a person in times of peril. Of course, that peril doesn’t always have to be the character’s own.

In this prompt, put your character on a bus full of people. A drunk old man is swaying violently and muttering under his breath, when suddenly he collapses. How does your character respond?

The reason I find this prompt useful is that it not only shows you how your character acts in a crisis, but it also gives an insight into how they act among people they don’t know, and how they behave in a crowd. There’s so much to unpack in a scene like this. It’s probably the most intense date you could ask for.

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And those are the five! I hope you find them useful. Good luck, and happy writing!

When I was a small child in the early stages of primary school, we learned about jobs – a slightly tricky concept for a child who has very little understanding of money and absolutely no grasp of what an economy is. But I knew that I loved stories and books, and I loved making up little stories of my own. So when I learned that there were people who wrote the books I loved to read, and that writing books was a type of job, I was overjoyed. While most of my classmates were fighting over being vets and tractor drivers, I came home and proudly announced to my mum that I wanted to be an author.

In true down-to-earth motherly fashion, my mum assured me how proud she was that I’d chosen a career (at the tender age of probably about five), but that if I wanted to be an author, I’d need a ‘proper job’ as well. Writing books, she told me, was something most people did on the side. I’d need to find a way to pay the bills.

For a couple of weeks, I thought about this. At that time I’m not sure I had any idea that some jobs paid more than others, so it was a lot to get my head around.

After much consideration, I came back to my mum: ‘I still want to be an author,’ I told her, ‘but I’ve decided what I want my proper job to be as well.’

My mum was all eagerness and congratulations: ‘That’s wonderful! What do you want to be?’

I grinned from ear to ear, ‘I want to be an actress.’

Bookcase bookshop, Carlisle

As adults, we know that some jobs pay more than others. We also know that some jobs pay enough to live off, whereas others do not. And let’s be honest, writing has always had a pretty bad reputation in terms of salary. You’re either J K Rowling, or you’re stuck in a garret somewhere with no heating and only half a heel of mouldy bread. As far as many people believe, there is no in between.

Not true, of course. There are plenty of authors who make a reasonable living from their craft, without become yacht-owning multi-millionaires. Just as there are plenty of authors who make an ok amount of money, but still need to keep another job to make up the rest. As with most careers, there’s a huge range of income levels, and a lot of that depends on the writer: what they write, their level of output, and what else they do alongside the actual writing to keep the wolf from the door.

In this post, I’m going to talk a bit about different ways to make a living as a writer. I’m then going to unpack this, and (with the help of some pie charts and a couple of line graphs) talk about what this looks like in practice in relation to my own income as a writer.

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Ways to make a living as a writer:

There are many different ways that a writer can make a living. Some of these depend on what you write (for example, poetry can look very different to commercial fiction), and some just on the preferences of the individual writer. Some means of earning an income will be directly related to the writing, and others less so. It’s all about what works for the individual writer.

As I write poetry and fiction, that’s what this post is focusing on. If you write scripts of any kind, or creative non-fiction, your outlets, and therefore your potential income streams, might be slightly different – although many of the following apply across genres.

So how do you earn a living as a writer?

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

1 – From your book:

This is perhaps the most obvious way for a writer to earn money – though many writers probably don’t earn as much from this as you’d think. It’s not uncommon for debut authors to get an advance of £5k, 15% of which goes to the agent. Hardly enough to live on, especially if you’re only publishing a book every few years.

Other ways your book can earn you money are through royalties from book sales (once they exceed what you’ve already been paid in your advance), and through the selling of additional rights, such as film rights or foreign rights. This effort to sell further rights to your book will be done either by the agent or by the publisher, depending on the terms of your contract.

Note: the above applies to fiction / non-fiction. If you’re a poet, you might earn enough for a couple of bottles of wine from selling your book, but I wouldn’t put the deposit on that mansion just yet.

2 – Readings / talks:

Usually once the book is published, an author will do events connected with that book. These could be anything from a reading of a section of the book, to a Q&A about their publication process, to a talk or panel discussion about some theme connected with the work. Often, they’re a combination of aspects of the above.

These opportunities aren’t always paid, but they should be. (See the Society of Authors’ page about where they stand on paying writers for appearances at festivals.) Thankfully, more and more, festivals and organisers seem to be wising up to the fact that this is work, just like any other job, and that authors need paying accordingly.

As you might expect, writers who publish once every few years tend to get more of these talks & readings in the years that they have books published. And, like everything else, certain writers’ work goes in and out of fashion, as do certain ideas. Which means that, while giving talks & readings can be a good way to supplement an income, it isn’t a steady constant.

3 – Workshops / teaching:

Many writers pass on their craft to other writers. This can involve running writing workshops in schools, or for adults – either through festivals, residential writing courses, or self-organised. Many writers also offer mentoring to other aspiring writers (either paid for individually by the mentee, or funded through some sort of arts funding), and / or teach at university level.

However, like any type of teaching, each of these has its own set of skills, which are themselves distinct from the skills you need simply to be a good writer. There are plenty of writers who run workshops because it’s the ‘done thing’, who realise quite quickly that they don’t enjoy it. My advice: if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. Your workshop participants will pick up on your lack of enthusiasm, and you won’t be doing yourself (or your participants) any favours.

On the flip side, if you enjoy running workshops, then go for it! There’s huge benefit to anyone in being taught by a skilled writer who’s passionate about passing on the skills of their trade.

4 – Funding:

I mentioned the F-word. Sorry. But there are a number of different ways to access funding as a writer.

One of these is to do a fully funded PhD – which essentially means you get paid to write for around 3 years (which is normally the length of time a funding body will fund you for a doctorate). These aren’t always easy to come by, and you have to be certain you want to dedicate 3 years of your life to doing a PhD, but if you can get one, it’s a great way to make sure the bills are paid and still have plenty of time to focus on writing / studying some aspect of your writing.

You can also find funding to write from other sources, if you don’t fancy doing a PhD. These include things like the Arts Council’s Developing Your Creative Practice grant, which gives artists up to £10k to focus on developing some aspect of their creative practice, and so far seems to have a roughly 1 in 10 acceptance rate, which isn’t bad. The Society of Authors also gives contingency grants and grants for works in progress.

If you want to run another writing-related project, which isn’t just your own writing, then there are funding bodies you can apply to for that as well, including places such as Arts Council England (or Creative Scotland / Arts Council of Wales / Arts Council of Northern Ireland, depending on where you’re based), the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Fenton Arts Trust, and the Jerwood Foundation, to name just a few. Most of these require your project to work with other people, and have some sort of outreach / public impact. Some can be applied for as an individual, and some require you to work with an organisation.

5 – Commissions:

A commission is when somebody (an organisation or another person) pays you to write something for them. This could be anything, and commissions vary in terms of how prescriptive they are. For instance, some give you quite a bit of free reign to interpret the creative brief, whereas others have a very set idea of what they want you to produce.

6 – Residencies:

As with commissions, writer in residence positions can be extremely varied in what they offer. Because this is a post about earning income, I’m going to leave aside talking about the sort of residency where the writer pays to attend, and focus on the more generous sort – some of which will pay the writer a fee, some will pay transport & a small stipend, and some will just provide the free accommodation and maybe a few meals if you’re lucky. It all depends on the individual residency. Even the residencies that don’t directly pay a fee can be a huge financial benefit though – particularly in winter, when the heating bill can be enormous, and you’re effectively living without having to pay bills.

In the same way, different residencies will require different things from the writer. Some will require very little, and will instead allow the writer to write at their own leisure for the duration (which can be anywhere from a week to several months to even a year). Most require some sort of reading of work-in-progress at the very least, and some require engagement with the local community, either through workshops or school visits or talks.

These sorts of residencies can be quite competitive, particularly for the more lucrative / prestigious ones, but the time to write can be invaluable.

7 – Prizes:

Equally competitive (if not more so) are writing prizes. These can be prizes for anything from a single poem, to a collection of poetry, to a short story, to a full novel. As well as the famous ones like the Man Booker Prize or the Costa Prizes, there are the prizes that unpublished writers can enter. Many of these charge a submission fee, though, so some careful calculations need to be made about how many of these to enter (and which ones) if you’re going to make money rather than lose it. And even then, it definitely isn’t a reliable source of income.

8 – Other writing-related work:

I’ve already sort of mentioned this when I was talking about funding a few points up, but there’s plenty of other work a writer can that’s related to their creative practice, but isn’t just writing. Many writers work as editors, either for publishing presses or for independent magazines. Some also hold other jobs within publishing, or work as reviewers. And you know those prizes I was talking about? Most of those are judged by writers, who are (mostly) paid to do so.

9 – Other arts related work:

And if it isn’t work directly linked to writing, then there are other ways to work in the arts. There are arts organisations, theatres, galleries and museums across the country, all of which need people working in them to make them run. A lot of these also offer part-time jobs, which can be ideal if you want to work part-time, and dedicate the rest of your week to your writing. (I’ve spent the past 6 years working part-time in arts administration, on and off.)

10 – Any other work:

Or, if a writer prefers to keep the artistic section of their brain separate from their other job, then there are plenty of other ways to earn money. I know writers who earn their income working in call centres, clearing tables and pulling pints. As long as it allows them to write, and to pay the big red bills when they come through the letterbox.

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Ok – so what does all of this look like in real life?

The term for this type of living seems to be ‘portfolio career’ – which sounds much more impressive than saying I do ‘bits and bobs’. More accurate, too, because I often find that the various aspects of my career inform one another. For instance, experiences in the workshops sometimes feed into my own writing, and connections made through my arts administration roles have led to commission opportunities and appearances at festivals.

So how did I earn my income last year?

I’ve broken my income down into sections: 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).

For 2018, the proportions are as follows:

As becomes clear very quickly from looking at this pie chart, over half of my income last year came from the advance from my novel. That makes sense. Depending on your publisher, an advance is usually paid in 3 or 4 installments. Mine is paid in 3, and because of various things to do with timings, I just so happened to get the first 2 installments in consecutive months last year. But, as I mentioned earlier, unless you’re publishing a book a year, you’re not going to get regular advance payments, which makes this year a slightly special one – and means that 2018’s income is highly skewed because of it.

(Since advances are usually negligible to non-existent for poetry, this is more of a feature of income streams for novelists and non-fiction writers.)

So let’s take that advance out of the equation, to try to get a more useful sense of proportions:

What we’re left with is a much more honest illustration of this type of portfolio career: just under half coming from workshops; around a third from other arts-related work; a reasonable chunk from commissions; and a smattering from competitions and readings.

CAVEAT: These proportions are specific not only to my career, but to this very particular year of my career. For example, the 2% for readings / talks is because I only appeared at one festival in 2018. This isn’t particularly surprising, when you think that the only book I had out was my pamphlet, which had come out the previous year (and I’d already done quite a number of events for it in 2017. If I do another pie chart at the end of 2019, when I have a poetry chapbook and a novel coming out, it’ll probably have different proportions here.

(Not included in these figures is the grant I received from the Arts Council’s Developing Your Creative Practice fund, as all of the work that will pay for is happening this year, and so I haven’t yet allowed myself to treat it as income.)

So how does this variation play out throughout the year? If a writer’s earnings can vary so much from one year to the next, what do they look like from month to month?

Again, these levels are skewed because of the novel advance. If you compare this graph to the first pie chart, we can see that I received 63% of my 2018 income in two consecutive months. But, as I said, this is kind of an anomaly – at least for me.

If we show the monthly income without including the advance, those August and September plot points look a little less drastic – though hopefully the varying of levels of income throughout the year is still apparent:

Even without the anomalous skew of the advance affecting the shape of the graph, April was a tough month. If every month was an April, then I’d definitely have had my electricity cut off by now. But then, April in 2018 contained Easter, along with all its attendant bank holidays, not to mention the school holidays. So suddenly this dip starts to make a lot of sense.

But if we look at the overall picture of the graph, rather than just month-by-month, my income has (generally speaking) improved as the year has progressed. Certainly I earned more in the second part of the year than I did in the first. I’m attributing this to the general progression that my career has undergone this year, rather than to some sort of shift in availability of work in the earlier to the later months.

But whatever the reason, it certainly shows that a writer’s income is far from reliable. It’s sporadic to say the least, and generally requires not only a willingness to juggle a portfolio of different income streams, but an ability to save for the leaner times as well.

 

January gets its name from Janus, the Roman god with two heads. One head for looking forwards, the other head for looking back. Because of this, he’s the god of doorways, gates and transitions. Hence, January: the door of the year, when we look back at how the year before has gone, and forward to what the new one will bring.

It’s true I’ve spent a little bit of time looking back this month. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about the submissions and applications I made in 2018, and how I fared with them. I also spent some time editing a poetry sequence that I had begun the year before. But mostly, I’ve spent this month looking forward.

And what am I looking forward to? Well, a few things, as it happens.

One of these is, of course, the publication of My Name is Monster in June. Summer months always sound such a long way off in January, when there’s ice on the road and I’m wearing about fifty layers just to sit at my kitchen table. But it’s going to come round unbelievably quickly, so I’ve already started preparing for it, organising launch events and planning readings etc. But more on that as and when the dates are confirmed.

I’m also looking forwards to a poetry-based project, Gretna. Part of a trilogy of theatre pieces exploring the borderlands between England and Scotland, Gretna gives a taster of a new collaboration between myself, Théâtre Volière and Lori Watson. For this project, I’ve been researching the history of women in and around Gretna Green, and writing a poem sequence in response. These poems will then be used to create a theatre piece, Gretna, which will then be presented at Ye Olde Mitre in London on 23rd & 24th March.

The third forward-looking thing I’ve been working on this month is actually kind of a secret. Well, not so much a secret as something I’m keeping close to my chest for now, and will talk a bit more about on here when I’m further into it. For now, I’ll just say that it’s a new project, and that it involves me roaming round Cumbria with a very fluffy piece of recording equipment!

Work-wise, that’s pretty much been the sum of my January. I spent the first few days of the new year crashed out ill on the sofa – which was partly to do with a horrendous bug that seemed to be going around, and partly because I’d been pretty much non-stop on the go for several months, and I think it was my body’s way of telling me to take a break.

I’ll be honest – I probably don’t take enough breaks. And, looking forward to my schedule for the first half of this year, 2019 isn’t shaping up to be particularly restful, either. Even holidays aren’t exactly relaxing, because I tend to want to see and do everything. (I went to Prague & Budapest for 6 days this month, with my friend Jessi, which was an incredible and inspiring and beautiful trip – but also very busy trying to wander round and see as much as possible!) So this year, I want to try and snatch some breaks, as and when I can. And if it’s nothing more than taking the full weekend off now and again, then so be it – it’s still better than nothing. After all, by the time the book launch comes around in June, I’m going to need those energy reserves.

The month in books:

My main 2019 resolution is to carve out more time for reading. Looking back, I know that I sacrificed a lot of reading time last year in favour of things like admin. Now, admin is undeniably important, as it’s what gets things done – but it doesn’t feed me creatively. Admin drains the creative tank, whereas reading fills it up again. So, looking forward (thanks, Janus), I resolved to do something about it. I resolved to force myself to make time for reading.

I probably still haven’t read as much as I’d have liked to this month, but let’s face it, when will I ever? It’s a start, and a habit I hope to build on in the months to come:

  • The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber
  • American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, by Terence Hayes
  • Fup, by Jim Dodge
  • Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli
  • Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon
  • Poems of a Molecatcher’s Daughter, by Geraldine Green
  • Selected Poems of Susanna Blamire, ed. Christopher Hugh Maycock
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

The month in pictures:

‘Yes, but what do you actually do all day?’

I keep hearing this from people, most of whom probably imagine that I spend my days loafing about in an oversized white shirt, drinking coffee and penning the occasional deep & meaningful couplet. While this isn’t 100% incorrect (at least, I do spend most of the day drinking coffee), there’s actually a lot more to writing, and to being a writer.

I’m going to separate those two things out here, because so often they get lumped together, and in my opinion, they’re actually slightly different things. There’s writing. Then there’s being a writer.

So what’s the difference?

Well, writing is the act of sitting at the computer or notebook or even vintage typewriter, and forcing yourself to get those words on the page. Being a writer is all the other stuff that comes along with that, so that your work doesn’t just stay on that computer or typewriter or foolscap paper.

A lot of people who are starting out, who dream of being the next J K Rowling, tend to wish they could skip the ‘writing’ stage and get straight to ‘being a writer’ – though this is often because they believe the oversized-white-shirt-wearing, coffee-drinking, inspirational-loafing myth. The writers who know what’s really involved are the ones who want to push aside all the ‘being a writer’ stuff and get back to the more wholesome business of ‘writing’.

the writing desk - February 2018

So what does ‘being a writer’ really involve?

The 3 main things a writer needs to do (the ‘essential skills’ on the job description, if you like) are:

Write:

This goes without saying, I suppose, but it’s important to remember that you can’t be a writer if you don’t write anything. It’s all very well owning a rack of flouncy white shirts and a feather quill, but it’s the words on the page that are at the forefront of the job. They’re your product.

Imagine a biscuit factory. It’s got a killer marketing campaign, a red-hot accounts department, wonderful managerial staff… In fact, everything it does is first class. Except it never makes any biscuits. Well, no, not quite never. I mean, it made a biscuit once. Or rather, it mixed up the cookie dough, but then never got round to baking it. But still, it loves to talk at parties about how it’s a really really great biscuit factory.

It just doesn’t work, does it? If the biscuit factory doesn’t make biscuits, then it has no product, and nothing else really matters. (If talking about poetry / fiction / any other form of writing as a ‘product’ offends you, then I’m sorry. But this post is about the business of being a writer, and any business needs a product, no matter how soulful and erudite that product may be.)

Read:

Following closely behind writing is reading. Though really, I should say that reading comes before writing, rather than after it. Because the reading, as I’m sure we all know, informs the writing. To continue the biscuit factory metaphor: you need to have tasted biscuits before to know what they’re supposed to look like; you need to have seen a biscuit recipe to know what normally goes into them; you need to know what other biscuit factories are making if you want to make something that’s truly your own.

I’ll admit that reading is often the first thing to be sacrificed when I’m struggling for time – something I’m really determined to work on this year. But it’s amazing how many people think they can skip over the reading bit. I was once chatting to a guy before a poetry open mic night, and during the conversation I asked him who his favourite poets were. With a look of greatest derision, he replied that he didn’t read poetry, because it would cramp his writing style and he wanted to remain individual. Needless to say, his poetry was not individual, but instead was universally bad. (This was also the guy who, later that evening, told me my poetry was ‘unfeminine’, and that I should write about ‘nice things like flowers and rabbits instead’ – and then later proceeded to aggressively heckle a poet who was performing a more political piece. But that’s another story.)

Edit:

This is another absolute must for writers: once you’ve read plenty of books, and you’ve written your own creative work (whether it’s a haiku or a 100,000-word novel), you need to edit it. For some reason, this is another step that people sometimes think they can skip, as if the words they first scribble onto the page or bash away on the keyboard are somehow divine and Must. Not. Be. Tampered. With.

I don’t know whether this is because we’re lazy, and once we’ve written ‘The End’ we just want it to be over. Maybe we’re all just too eager to move onto the next thing. Or perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves into believing in the sacred moment of inspiration as some sort of untouchable perfect truth. Whatever reason, it’s almost always completely and utterly wrong. The work needs editing. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and a piece of writing needs to be crafted.

This doesn’t just mean checking for spelling and punctuation errors, either. It means rewriting. It means reworking, as if the poem/story/whatever is a piece of clay and you have to mould it into the shape it ought to fit. Sometimes it’s like a house that needs tearing down and building back up again, with the same bricks all present, but just a different architecture. Editing is a skill in and of itself – and it doesn’t stop once you hand in the manuscript to your agent / editor and get it accepted. The editing goes on and on, usually for months.

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I bought some fancy coloured gel pens for editing

These are my three absolute essentials to being a writer. The ‘necessary skills’ on the job description. The rest of it sort of depends on what sort of writer you want to be, and how you want to run your business. But here are a few common ‘desirable skills’, which can definitely help you on your way to being a writer:

Emails: Ok, I know it’s obvious, and I know it isn’t particular to writers. But it’s worth mentioning, if only because it takes up so much blooming time. Whatever business you’re running, dealing with emails is an important and time-consuming aspect of the job. It’s just the world we currently live in. And being a writer is no different.

Submissions: If you want people to read your work, you’re going to have to make some sort of effort to get it out there. Of course, one method of doing this is going down the self-publishing route, but I’m going to leave that to one side for this post – partly because it isn’t my field of expertise, but mainly because once you’re self-publishing, you’re not just being a writer: you’re also being an editor, a copyeditor, a proofreader, a designer, a marketing person, a sales rep, and a whole host of other things besides. So looking at the more traditional route: submitting your work. This can be as big and momentous as submitting a novel to agents, or as frequent as submitting poems to journals or competitions. Either way, the skill set is the same: research your options and opportunities; tailor your submission to the recipient; create some sort of system so you know which pieces you’ve sent to whom, and when; try not to get too disheartened if / when it comes back as a no.

Applications: In the next column over to submissions is applications. This is about looking for those other opportunities for you as a writer, which you can apply to – such as funding opportunities, residencies, and any freelance work that might be up your street. (Rather than submitting your new type of biscuit to a ‘biscuit of the year’ competition, you’re looking for a council grant to help you build that new wing of the biscuit factory. That sort of thing.) There’s no rule that says you have to do this, but if you get a grant to buy you time to write, then that’s got to be a good thing. After all, if you’re thinking of your writing as a business, then you need to find a way to make that business pay. (I’ll talk about other ways to earn a living from writing in another post.) But warning: depending on the application, these can be incredibly time-consuming, which means lots of time writing applications, less time writing the real creative stuff.

Marketing: Again, there’s no rule that says you have to do this as a writer, but more and more, it’s expected that writers will assist in marketing their own book. As well as the book, however, writers often find they have to market themselves as people. Luckily, there’s no set way of marketing yourself, or your book, which largely means you can tailor it to what you feel comfortable doing. If you love making YouTube videos, then great, you can start a book vlog. If you hate the idea of filming yourself, but you’d love to go out and run events in local bookshops, then that’s also great.

Blogging & social media: This is probably really a part of the ‘marketing’ point above, but it’s such a major thing that I think it deserves its own subheading. Often with these things, you’re not marketing a specific book (or one particular type of biscuit), but you’re marketing yourself as a whole brand. And you’re doing this not by shouting into the twitter-void in the hope that someone somewhere will hear your echoes. You’re doing this by connecting with people: with your readership, with fellow writers, with other people in the literary industry. All too often I see writers tweeting things like ‘Buy my book!’ followed by a link and 9-10 hashtags. Once or twice this is fine, but when this is the only thing a writer ever seems to tweet, then you have to question why you’re following that person. After all, if you had a choice between eavesdropping on, or even engaging in, an interesting conversation, or standing beside the man in the sandwichboard continuously yelling about some promotion or other, I can guess which one you’re most likely to pick.

Talks / Panels / Readings: Again, the days where writers wrote a book, came out for a signing or two the week it was published, then returned to their garret to work on the sequel are long gone. It’s very common for writers to give readings of their work, or to be expected to talk on subjects related to their book – either individually or as part of a panel discussion. This isn’t just a case of showing up and rattling something off, either. Like anything else, all these appearances require preparation. The ability to prepare for these, and then to perform well in them, is another skill in the writer’s job description.

Writing (again): As well as working on your own creative projects, as a writer you might also be expected to write articles and commissioned pieces. This is much in the same vein as giving talks or appearing on panels, except that it’s written down and published, instead of spoken live.

Workshops / Teaching / Project Management: And lastly, there are all the ways that a writer can make money, which are indirectly related to writing, but not writing itself. Many writers teach, or run workshops, or mentor other writers. Or they manage writing-related projects, or work for literature-based organisations. All these things have their own job descriptions, but I wanted to make a nod to them here, just to illustrate the sheer variety of skills required to ‘be a writer’, beyond just the skill of ‘writing.

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Good luck – and keep writing!

It’s a thing any writer will be familiar with: the too-thin envelope in the post, containing that single slip of photocopied paper; the email that starts ‘thank you for submitting/applying/sending’ and continues shortly after with ‘unfortunately’; or just the billowing silence until time runs out and you realise that acknowledgment is never going to come.

It happens all the time. Last week, I wrote a post about the number of rejections I received in 2018 (54, in case you’re wondering), and on how this related to other outcomes for my submissions. This week, I’m less interested in the mathematics, and more interested in the psychology of it all. After all, nobody likes to feel rejected, but if it’s going to happen a lot (which, if you’re a writer, it almost certainly is), then you need to find a way of dealing with it.

Social media addiction - Katie Hale, Cumbrian poet, writer and artist

1 – Own it.

One way to cope with those pesky rejection letters is to own your own rejection. We’ve all heard stories of writers who paper their downstairs loo with rejection letters. I’ve heard that Lulu now even offers a service where they’ll print your rejection letters on toilet paper for you, so you can quite literally flush them away. Charming. Personally, I keep all of my responses from journals / magazines etc in two folders in my desk drawer: one for rejections, one for acceptances. My aim is for the acceptance folder to one day outgrow the rejection folder, but even if it doesn’t, that isn’t really the point. The main point is that the very act of filing the letter gives me (and that rejection) a sense of purpose.
NB: In a world where most rejections come in the form of emails rather than snail mail, you can either print each email out in order to file it, or create a colour-coded spreadsheet, where you can colour the squares on the table once a submission is returned to you, successful or otherwise.

Writing poetry with a cup of tea. Katie Hale, Cumbrian poet / writer etc
Poetry & a cuppa

2 – Reject ‘rejection’.

This thought is all about framing – along the lines of nobody beeing able to make you feel inferior without your consent (thanks, Eleanor Roosevelt). Basically, if you don’t think of it as ‘rejection’, then maybe it will hurt less. Think of it instead as fishing. You keep casting your line out, and you keep reeling it in. Sometimes there’s a wriggling fish hooked on the end, but most times it’s empty. That’s ok, though. This is just another opportunity for you to add fresh bait.

typewriter - Katie Hale

3 – Keep lots of irons in the fire.

And speaking of fresh bait… Always have multiple submissions that you’re waiting to hear back from. If you pin all your hopes on one submission, and it comes back as a no, then you’re going to be understandably devastated. If you’ve always got a number of things you’re waiting on, it’s not going to be such a big deal if one of them comes back as a no.

4 – And keep working.

If you’re going to sustain this level of sending out work, then it stands to reason that you need to keep creating work to send out. Which is a good thing, because really, the writing is the most important part. It’s why we do all this other stuff, like sending off poems to magazines and submitting funding applications. If you remember that the writing is key, and the rest is, essentially, all just guff, then whenever a rejection comes in, you can just pull back to the writing.

5 – Celebrate your successes.

It’s one thing owning your rejection, but the things you really want to own are your successes. So tell people. Be rightly proud of your achievements. This doesn’t mean you have to kick modesty to the curb, but don’t high your light under a bushel either. If you’ve achieved something, give yourself credit for it. And while you’re giving yourself credit, why not give yourself cake, or a bubble bath, or a new pen or something – some little treat to reward yourself. If you were a banker or a stock broker or something high-flying, you might get a bonus when you performed particularly well. Think of that coffee & walnut cake as your writerly equivalent of a 6-figure banker’s bonus.

*

Good luck! And whatever your coping method: keep writing, and keep putting your work out there.

Back at the start of last year, I resolved to put my work out there 100 times over the course of 12 months. This meant I was aiming for 100 submissions and applications over the course of 2018.

The submissions and applications could be for anything, as long as it was writing- or arts-related. This meant arts job applications, funding bids, residency applications, magazine submissions and competition entries were all fair game.

The aim was never really to succeed in all of these things, or even to succeed in as many as possible (although I did hope that this might be a pleasant side-effect). Instead, it was about getting my work out and getting my name known. It was about forging connections. It was also about creating some sort of transparency around just how difficult it is to make it as a writer, and how often a thanks-but-no-thanks response is all we get to show for our troubles.

So how did I do?

Well for a start-off, I didn’t quite manage 100 – although I did come pretty close. I managed 87 submissions / applications / entries. Of these, the majority were to competitions, closely followed by residencies.

Total submissions during 2018: 87

The breakdown of these 87 submissions:

  • Competition entries: 41
  • Residency applications: 26
  • Submissions to journals / anthologies: 8
  • Funding applications: 6
  • Job applications: 6

Or, for those of you who like things in percentages and pie charts:
2018 submission types

It might not have been the 100 submissions I was originally aiming for, but I think 87 provides a large enough pool of data to get some sort of idea of statistics for positive returns on submissions.

As you might expect, some months I submitted more things than others. January was by far and away the most productive month – which makes sense, when you think about it. January is generally when we’re best at sticking to all our new resolutions, only for them to taper off when February comes around. Plus, January has all of that lovely time in the first few days of the year, when you’re just lazing around after Christmas, looking for some time to fill with an application or two.

2018 submissions by month

As for the end of the year – well, there was a pretty good reason for making fewer applications towards the end of the year: namely, that by then I’d had enough successes that my diary was starting to look pretty full! Which, as far as I’m concerned, makes the whole endeavour a success in and of itself.

So how many successes does it take to count the year as a success?

Well, here’s my breakdown of responses to my 2018 submissions / applications etc:

  • Success: 12
  • Partial success*: 5
  • Rejection: 54
  • Still waiting for news: 16

* ‘Partial success’ I defined as anything that was a positive outcome, but without receiving a full prize. For example, ‘commended’ in competitions, or submissions that were a ‘no’ but then led on to something else.

2018 submission results

What do all these graphs & numbers mean?

Well, you can see from the pie chart above that the outcome of these submissions was overwhelmingly rejection: the big yellow segment. (Though if you want to think more positively, there’s a great article here from Aki Schilz at The Literary Consultancy, on redefining creative success, and the problems with using the word ‘rejection’.)

So what proportion of these submissions resulted in some sort of success, full or partial? So far, 17 out of 87 – or around 19.5%. That’s roughly 1 in 5, which actually isn’t bad odds. Maybe, then, it’s all about how we frame things.

For instance, if I told you that I received 54 rejections last year, it’d sound pretty pitiable. You’d be all ready to bemoan the unfortunate life of the oft-rejected writer, and honestly, who can blame you? That’s more than one rejection per week, which officially means that in 2018 I received rejections more often than I remembered to put the bins out.

But then, when I say that 1 in every 5 of my applications / submissions was successful… Well, that sounds much better. Suddenly, being a writer sounds frankly quite a bouyant lifestyle.

The problem? These acceptances & rejections don’t spread themselves out in a nice easy pattern. You don’t get 4 rejections one month, followed by a nice acceptance, followed by another 4 rejections the following month, but then another acceptance to perk your spirits up. Instead, they come in waves. Which means you might get an unbelievable frenzy of 3 or 4 acceptances back-to-back, making you feel you’re on top of the world – but you might have really needed that frenzy after several months of wall-to-wall rejections.

I’ll write more about dealing with these periods of rejection in a future post, because I think that it deserves much more space than I can give it here. For now, I just want to say: take heart. This post has always been about providing transparency about just how much so-called ‘rejection’ a writer has to take, and why it isn’t all book launches and prizegivings. If you’re receiving lots of thanks-but-no-thanks responses, then don’t worry. You’re not the only one.

Ok, so what do all these numbers actually mean?

Honestly? They don’t really mean anything. I know, I know – I’ve made you sit through a whole blog post (well done if you made it this far without scrolling!) and now I’m telling you it was all worthless? Well, sort of, but not quite.

Because the numbers are an accurate representation of acceptance:rejection ratios (1:4), and they are an indication of just how many rejections a writer can receive in a year. But every writer’s ratio is going to be different, depending on where they are in their carreer, on what sort of things they’re submitting to, on how hard they work on their craft or on the applications themselves. In the same way, the number of rejections each writer receives is going to be different, depending on how often they’re sending work out or submitting applications. These are only my numbers for one particular year.

And the plot twist at the end of the post?

These graphs and charts and numbers are only part of the picture. As well as the things I actively applied to / submitted for, there are the successes that found their way into my inbox through word of mouth, or through other literary connections – successes such as the commissions and the workshops and the festivals.

So yes, there were a lot of rejections. 54 of them, to be exact. But there were also a lot of things to celebrate – which, at the start of a new determined year, is what we should probably focus on after all.

It’s that time again – the time for looking back at the year gone by and wondering where the time went. Though for once, this year doesn’t feel like it’s rushed by me in a blink and a blur. For once, I can look back and think that 1st January 2018 actually feels like a full year ago. Maybe because so much has changed since then.

I’ve talked a bit about this before, how luck can suddenly change and how validation can come at the drop of a hat, but it’s such a big thing that I want to talk about it again. Because this time last year I wasn’t quite making it as a writer. Don’t get me wrong – I was pleased about how things were going. I’d had some poetry successes in 2017, had taken a show to the Edinburgh Fringe and was several drafts deep into a novel. But it wasn’t financially sustainable. The writing itself was going well, but I was struggling to pay the bills.

And then, along came June: the month that turned it all around. Within the space of a few weeks, I’d received a grant from the Arts Council and Canongate had acquired my novel. And just like that, I could afford to put the heating on. Just like that, my dream of being a completely freelance full-time writer looked financially viable.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising how much of a difference money makes. After all, it’s what drives so many people to get out of bed in the morning, and what stops so many more people from getting to sleep at night. But I don’t think I’d realised quite how much that financial stability meant to me – not least because it means time when I can write, without worrying about how to buy groceries or fill the car with petrol or anything else so quotidien. Instead, I can worry about much more interesting things, like line breaks and plot and structure. Which is exactly the sort of thing I like to be worrying about.

Poetry:

In terms of poetry, 2018 has been a year for residentials, commissions and prizes.

I started the year with a poetry residential in St Ives, which was a week-long retreat at a hotel with four other lovely poets and lots and lots of scones. I then went on my first ever Arvon course in June, which was hugely inspirational, and where I wrote probably more poems than in either the 6 months before or since – before rounding off the year with 4 days at Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel in Grange-over-Sands: 4 workshops with 4 different tutors, and once again buckets full of inspiration.

What was so lovely about each of these occasions was that they gave me time to focus on what the poetry I wanted to write, while also pushing me and my work in new directions. These opportunities were particularly helpful, because most of my other writing this year has been either fiction, or has been commission-driven.

Given that I completed my first ever commission in the second half of 2017, I’ve been pleasantly overwhelmed with the commissions I’ve had this year – which just goes to emphasise how quickly things turn around and take on a positive streak.

It started in January, with a poem for the Barbican Centre‘s Subject to Change project. The poem was called ‘Honey’, and was written in response to an incident that occured on Virgin Trains’ East Coast service at the start of the year. This commission was followed by one from Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, which is still ongoing, and another from the National Trust: as part of their three-year participation project, Tables Turned, I was asked to meet a group of former miners in Whitehaven, and to use their memories of working in the mines to write a creative response through poetry. The result was ‘We’re still here, with luck’, using comments made by the miners interspersed with my own words:

I’ve also been working on a commission from a theatre company, Théâtre Volière, to write a sequence of poems about the history of women in the area around Gretna Green. Théâtre Volière will then collaborate with musicisn Lori Watson to create a theatre piece, Gretna, which will be performed at Ye Olde Mitre in London next March.

And, while we’re on the subject of history, my final commission of 2018 was from BBC Radio Cumbria to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, in response to Carlisle’s Armistice Day celebrations 100 years ago. The lovely people at Carlisle Cathedral were then good enough to let me climb the (very very very steep) stairs to the roof of the bell tower with Radio Cumbria’s Belinda Artingstoll to film it.

I also had a commission this year to work with Kendal Poetry Festival to create a ‘guerrilla poetry‘ project – except that, being me, I sort of got a bit carried away with it, and instead of creating one guerrilla poetry project, ended up creating three. These were a River of Poems, which wound alongside the Kent from the weekend before the festival, a series of pop-up performances at the Brewery Arts Centre‘s community open day at the end of August, and a whole great sack of Festival Survival Kits, which were distributed during the festival itself. All three projects featured poems by member of Brewery Poets and members of Dove Cottage Young Poets.

And while we’re on the subject of festivals, this year I achieved a long-term goal and performed at StAnza Poetry Festival. For those who don’t know, StAnza is a lovely festival that takes place every March, and I’ve been desperate to read there ever since I was doing my MLitt at St Andrews in 2012/13. This year, I not only got to do a reading, but I also got to perform at the festival launch event (at the same event as Barbara Dickson!) and to appear on a panel at the festival finale. Huge shoutout to StAnza for the opportunities and their support!

And, completing the trilogy of festivals, this year I was also invited to run a poetry workshop at Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle. Borderlines is another festival that I hold close to my heart, as I remember being in a meeting a few years ago when they were talking about plans for the first one, and it’s been hugely exciting to watch it grow, and to keep attending events and workshops there over the years. And even more exciting to be allowed to run one of my own!

Continuing the Cumbrian theme, 2018 also saw the publication of the much-lauded (and rightly so) anthology of contemporary Cumbrian poetry, This Place I Know, published by Handstand Press – which I am very pleased to be a part of.

Kendal Poetry Festival 2018: guerrilla poetry, River of Poems

As well as publication, it’s also been an amazing year for prizes! I’m putting this down to my 2018 resolution, which was to send off 100 submissions / applications during the year. I didn’t quite make the 100 (more on this in a later post), but it did mean an unusually high number of submissions, which happily meant an unusually high number of successes. These have included winning the Buzzwords Poetry Competition, coming second in the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, and being shortlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize. As well as individual poems, I was also delighted (and very surprised) to win the Munster Literature Centre’s Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. As a result, my chapbook, Assembly Instructions, will be published by Southword in Spring 2019, and will be launched at Cork International Poetry Festival. I also found out just recently that I’ve been shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize, which I find out the final results of at the start of February. Fingers crossed!

And rounding off an already-pretty-round year of poetry success, I want to mention the one that marked the start of it all turning around, that took me from being end-of-the-line defeatist to writer-actually-earning-a-living-from-it: the Developing Your Creative Practice grant from Arts Council England. Funding to research and write a collection of poetry, including a research trip to New York, Virginia & Kentucky, which will take place next year. Talk about exciting opportunities!

Editing the novel

Fiction:

Last year, I drafted a novel – something that was as much of a surprise to me as it was to anyone else. As I’ve already talked about in a number of previous posts, this came about because I got a place on Penguin Random House’s WriteNow mentoring scheme. Earlier this year, my time as part of that mentoring scheme came to an end (though not before a lovely meet-up with some of my fellow WriteNow mentees at the Penguin Random House offices on The Strand in a sizzling hot day in April). There was a bit of back and forth for a few months, but over the summer I got the news: that Canongate wanted to publish my book.

As a result, My Name is Monster is coming out in June next year!

A novel about power and “the strength and the danger in a mother’s love”, My Name is Monster 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.

The proofs for the novel arrived while I was on holiday in November, and they look beautiful – there’s even some lovely shiny copper foil on the cover. But what got me most is the fact that it also smells like a book: that beautiful new-book smell that speaks of all the possibility hidden between unread pages. June is going to come around so quickly!

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

Other Things:

Fitting with the mix of things this year has brought, I also went back to working in an office for part of the year. For around nine months, I spent a day a week working at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, doing admin in the Youth Arts department. It was so so lovely having colleagues again: people that I see and get to chat to and work with every week. That’s something I can really see myself missing next year.

I also led a series of workshops while I was there, as part of a pilot project working with young LGBTQ+ people in the Kendal area, which was really good fun. As was the young filmmakers’ class I ended up running! And no, I’m not suddenly a filmmaker. It was a self-led group of young people, and I was just there to keep them on track in a support role. The plus side is that I learned a lot about film along the way!

I’ve also run an awful lot of schools workshops this year, in both primary and secondary schools, which have been really fun – particularly the one I ran in QEGS library (which was the scene of my first kiss over a decade ago!) and the one I ran for a group of teachers from different secondary schools, where I got to push them out of their comfort zones and get them to see poetry as play. (That said, most of them didn’t actually take all that much pushing!) Alongside these, I’ve run a fair few Arts Award Discover days in schools, and was also invited to co-run a workshop at the Barbican Centre with friend & fellow-former-Barbican Young Poet Kareem Parkins-Brown.

A bit closer to home, I was a guest on Radio Cumbria’s new Arty Show a couple of months ago, which was a really fun few hours talking all things arty, listening to lots of music and interesting interviews, and eating chocolate biscuits!

Dove Cottage, home of Cumbrian poet William Wordsworth

What Next?

From the look of it so far, 2019 is shaping up to be an even busier year than 2018!

I have my poetry chapbook, Assembly Instructions, coming out in March, and then My Name is Monster coming out just  few months later in June. So there’ll be plenty to do in preparation for both of those, and then of course readings and events around them after the launches themselves.

And speaking of events – I also have Gretna: a theatre piece created in collaboration wtih Théâtre Volière and musician Lori Watson, exploring the borderlands between England and Scotland from the perspective of the women so often written out of its history. Gretna is showing in London in March, for two performances only!

Luckily, there’ll also be plenty of time among all of this for writing, as I have three residencies and a research trip lined up for next year. The first of these is a month-long residency at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. I’ll then be spending another month in Brussels at the other end of the year, with Passa Porta, in conjunction with the National Centre for Writing and the Flemish Literature Fund. And in between the two, I have three weeks at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, which should provide a calm oasis of writing time in the middle of a hectic research trip to New York, Kentucky and Virginia.

So onwards into a brave new year!

The Year in Pictures:

Six weeks ago marked the centenary of Armistice Day: 100 years since the official end of the First World War. The atmosphere was a strange mix of learned horror and official pomp and circumstance, with a disturbingly celebratory and victorious tone to some of the remembrance events. Six weeks on, I want to share my own poem about the centenary, which was broadcast on Radio Cumbria on 11th November 2018.

‘When there was peace’ was commissioned by BBC Radio Cumbria’s Up For Arts project, supported by Heritage Lottery Funding. It was recorded at Carlisle Cathedral.

Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to work with a group of former miners from Whitehaven on an oral history project. This was part of Tables Turned, a three year participation project run by the National Trust and partners, 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.

After meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was commissioned by the National Trust to write a poem in response. The result is ‘We’re still here, with luck’, whose title comes from something one of the miners said right at the end of the meeting, as we were packing away all the chairs and biscuits and recording equipment. Quotes from the miners are threaded throughout the poem, which was then filmed by John Hamlett.

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‘We’re still here, with luck’

 

                                       You can tell a miner from the scars,
                                       blue with coal dust, like free tattoos.

A miner wears his memory in his skin –
the mines and all the men who mined them,
screen lasses who sorted the coal

                             with good shoulders, shotputters’ shoulders.

Sitting in a circle in the church hall
in the room with custard creams and a serving hatch,

                                                     we teeter above a shaft
                             of stories, hanging like the cage at pit top
                             over a 1200ft drop. Outside,

boarded shut at the backs of houses and the edges
of fields, are beginnings of tunnels
like the town’s capillaries.

We bring them in,
till the adits are the mouths of the men

and the conversation goes back generations.
There’s a seam we keep following,
because these men remember the town
before they were born, can mine
stories and places passed hand to hand –

                                       black dust on Golden Sands

                                        and watter runnin’ in like hell

Some say the pier at Parton
was blasted by a storm, others
how Lowther pulled it down –
their tales like passageways that intersect
then channel on.

                                       No seam lies in a perfect plane.

In the deep, their memories
grow big and spacious as a ballroom, a new face
waiting for the goaf to drop:

                                       rippled, like being on a beach,

the fat clams of ironstone nodules, marcasite
like fish scales
where the rock
dances to the muscled band of the seam,
where the girders bend and break
and we wait.

           That waiting was the most profound sound you ever heard

like the stillness after the last reverberation
of a cathedral bell.

From their mouths come the names
compressed and precious as a litany, as coal:

                             Haig, William, Wellington, Lowca, Kells.

‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.’
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

I love Octobers. I love the excuse to curl up in front of the fire and drink hot chocolate. I love the changing leaves. I love it when the clocks go back and I get to sleep for an extra hour. I even love the darker nights, because they somehow make everything seem closer and cosier. What I don’t love is how my house suddenly becomes full of horrifically gigantic spiders. Urgh.

That aside, I’ve had a wonderful, if very busy, October this year. So busy that I think I blinked and suddenly it’s November. Which means not all that long to get things ready for Christmas… But I’m going to leave that can of worms well and truly closed.

Dove Cottage, home of Cumbrian poet William Wordsworth

A Few Good Things:

There are quite a few things to celebrate this month, starting with my poem, ‘Bugs’, which received second place in the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, judged by Kayo Chingonyi. This is one of those poems that I’ve had kicking around for a while, so I was particularly overjoyed that it was selected for this. (You can read my poem, and the other prizewinners, here.)

And speaking of selections: a week or so ago, I also learned that I’d won the Munster Literature Centre’s ‘Fool for Poetry’ chapbook competition! This means that my chapbook, Assembly Instructions, will be published and launched at Cork International Poetry Festival in March next year.

On this fiction side of things, I received the proof pages for My Name is Monster this month, so I’ve been working through those while drinking copious amounts of coffee. But the plus side is that it means proof copies are about to go to print – which means that soon I’ll be able to hold a copy of my novel that looks something like an actual book!

But plenty to be getting on with in the meantime – like the many school workshops I’ve led this month, including a full day at my old school, QEGS in Penrith. Last time I led a workshop there, I blushingly confessed to the librarian that I’d had my first kiss in that school library over a decade earlier, so I was slightly entertained when she introduced me to the students as, ‘Katie: a former QEGS pupil who knows this library extremely well!’ I was even more entertained by the sign that I spotted in the library this time around, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t there before:

And while we’re on the subject of the past…

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in front of a camera on two separate occasions, filming commissioned poems with an historical twist. The first was a poem written for the National Trust, as part of an oral history project working with a group of former miners in Whitehaven, using their words and mine to create a poetic response to what they told us about their memories of the mines.

The second was for BBC Radio Cumbria, to be aired as part of the First World War centenary commemorations in November. We were lucky enough to be allowed to climb Carlisle Cathedral bell tower to film this on the roof, which was 130 (incredly steep and narrow and slightly terrifying) steps up, but which had a magnificent view across the city. So I’m looking forward to seeing the finished result for both pieces.

I’ve been up in Carlisle quite a lot over the past few weeks, as it happens. Early in October, Carlisle saw the 5th year of Borderlines Book Festival, where I led a poetry workshop on inspiration and ‘Provoking the Creative Brain’, as well as reading at the launch of This Place I Know: the fantastic new anthology of Cumbrian poetry from Handstand Press.

And then on the Monday, I was back up to Carlisle and in the Radio Cumbria studio. For anyone who hasn’t yet listened to BBC Radio Cumbria’s new Arty Show, you definitely should. It’s 3 hours on a Monday evening, with a real variety of interviews / features / music – and they always have two studio guests with them for the duration, discussing their art forms and providing commentary on the programme’s other features. And on Monday 8th October, I was a guest on the show, along with stone sculptor Shawn Williamson.

Cumbria

When I haven’t been hanging out in Carlisle, I’ve been in the south of the county. My friend Jessi came to stay from Edinburgh for a few days, during which we went to a weekend workshop on editing and structure, run by Zosia Wand at the Reading Room in Ulverston. It was such an inspiring and useful weekend, and a wonderful opportunity to focus very specifically on structure for two whole days – though admittedly by the end of the Sunday we were shattered and our brains were completely worn out. I guess there’s a limit to how much creativity you can (or should) pack into a day!

On a more personal note, this month my grandma turned 98, and on the same day my friend Tam got married in a beautiful (if chilly) outdoor ceremony at Arnos Vale in Bristol. And of course there was Halloween, which meant trick-or-treating with my goddaughter; she was dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, her mum was dressed as a grandma, which left me to be the wolf. So, obviously, I made my most elaborate attempt at wolfish facepaint – which I then had to wear to teach my youth arts class at The Brewery in Kendal, because I hadn’t had time in between to change.

The Month in Submissions:

As I’ve mentioned before, I originally wanted to attempt 100 submissions this year so I could show how slim the odds are on each individual submission being successful. For a while it was working, and I was getting nice big packets of rejections every month – but October has definitely bucked the trend. For the first time since I started measuring the outcome of my submissions in this way (actually scrap that, I think for the first time ever), I’ve had the same number of successful replies as unsuccessful ones.

  • Submissions made: 8
  • Unsuccessful: 5
  • Successful: 5

Three of these successes are under wraps till further notice (though make no mistake, I will be making a song and dance about them when the time comes). The other successes were coming second in the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, and winning Munster Literature Centre’s Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. Not bad, as months go!

The Month in Books:

Only 4 books this month, and one of them was very short. But I’m hoping that November will provide a bit more reading time, as I’m planning to be spending a bit more time on public transport of one sort or another, which is usually pretty good reading time. Fingers crossed.

For October, though, my reading was:

  • playtime, by Andrew McMillan
  • My Name is Leon, by Kit de Waal
  • Create Dangerously, by Albert Camus
  • All the Journeys I Never Took, by Rebecca Tantony

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The Month in Pictures:

September always feels like a reminder that the world is turning on its axis, that time is moving steadily on, and that the seasons are changing. I’ve dug out my ankle boots from the box under the bed, and rescued the woolly jumpers from their summer storage in the ottoman. And nothing makes time feel swifter than a busy couple of months.

A Few Good Things:

The main news this month is this: that in 2019, my debut novel will be published by Canongate.

This is something I’ve known about for a while, but have had to keep quiet till the official announcement was made. And a note from experience: it’s incredibly difficult not to shout about something like this from the rooftops straight away. But luckily, it’s all out in the open now, so I can celebrate to my heart’s content.

A novel about power and “the strength and the danger in a mother’s love”, My Name is Monster 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.

– quote taken from the article in The Bookseller. You can read the full article here.

The novel comes out next year (Thursday 6th June 2019, to be very precise), in hardback and ebook. So I’ll definitely be planning some sort of celebration for then!

Kendal Poetry Festival 2018: guerrilla poetry, Festival Survival Kits

As well as the novel, it’s also been a busy couple of months for poetry.

A couple of days after handing in the final version of the manuscript of My Name is Monster, I was at Castle Green Hotel in Kendal, distributing mini envelops to a room packed with poets. This was Kendal Poetry Festival. For the festival’s third year, it moved premeses, in order to be able to have space for its growing audiences. I was also asked to introduce something a little…different to the crowd.

Following the success of last year’s Postcard Poems, I created three guerrilla poetry projects for Kendal Poetry Festival 2018: the River of Poems, the Festival Survival Kits, and a day of pop-up performances at the Brewery Arts Centre.

The River of Poems was an installation of contemporary poetry, displayed along the river walk in the centre of Kendal, next to the Waterside Cafe (where the festival’s ‘Opening Doors: Open Mic’ event took place). It was formed of poetry by members of Brewery Poets and Dove Cottage Young Poets, and was in place during the week preceding the festival, as well as during the festival itself.

Also during the festival itself, audience members were given ‘survival kits’. The idea was that the Festival Survival Kits contained everything needed to keep a poet or an audience member going during the festival: some tea & Kendal Mint Cake (for energy), a plaster (just in case), and, of course, poetry.

The poetry contained within the Festival Survival Kits was also the work of members of Brewery Poets and Dove Cottage Young Poets. The kits themselves were sponsored by two Kendal companies: Farrer’s (who provided individually wrapped teabags containining their signature Lakeland Blend) and Romney’s (who provided after-dinner portions of Kendal Mint Cake). During the festival, 300 survival kits were distributed to audience members.

And last but not least, a few members of Brewery Poets also staged a number of ‘impromptu’ pop-up performances at The Brewery Arts Centre on 1st September, as part of their Creative Community Open Day. Highlights included reading to a woman sitting outside the cafe with her dog (the dog was also very appreciative), and our final performance of the day, after which a woman in our unsuspecting audience put up her hand and asked if she could read out one of her poems as well. Which, for me, is what guerrilla poetry is all about: making space for poetry within the everyday.

As if all that wasn’t enough – there was also the festival itself, which was a veritable poetry feast. I quickly lost track of how many events I’d attended over the weekend, and how many poets I’d heard read, whether that was the poets listed in the programme, or the Dove Cottage Young Poets, who provided the ‘warm-up acts’ for the listed poets, and who were equally amazing. And I came away with a stack of books that I’m incredibly excited to eventually put some time aside to get stuck into.

And finally in the poetry-related news… A few weeks ago, I learned that I’d won the Buzzwords Poetry Competition, with a poem inspired by a road trip across America in 2016.

Since my last post, I also learned that I was shortlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize, and highly commended in the Otley Poetry Prize – both with poems that I wrote on an Arvon course back in June.

So needless to say, I’m feeling on a bit of a writing high at the moment! As for October, it’s already lined up to be another busy month, with lots of schools workshops to see me through to half term, a weekend workshop to attend, and a poetry commission to complete. Time to put the kettle on and get writing!

The Months in Submissions:

Back in January, I made a decision: that in 2019, I would make 100 submissions and / or applications. The idea behind this was twofold. The sheer number of applications would hopefully mean that I would at least be successful with one or two of them. As well as this, I wanted to highlight just how many rejections writers face.

Well, I’ve definitely had my fair share of rejections. But I’m not sure that I’ll achieve my goal of 100, as my current tally is 74, which means another 26 to go over the next three months. This isn’t wholly impossible, but the problem (and it’s a good problem to have) is that there are a fair few things that there’s just no point in applying for now, because I wouldn’t be able to fit them in even if I were successful! Which, I suppose, is the real reason behind all this anyway. So that’s a good thing.

With that in mind, here are August & September’s combined submissions statistics:

  • Submissions made: 13
  • Unsuccessful: 6
  • Partially successful: 2
  • Successful: 2

The partial successes were my shortlisting in the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Competition, and the highly commended in the Otley Poetry Prize. One of the (fully) successful submissions was the Buzzwords Open Poetry Competition. The other is under wraps for now…

The Months in Books:

(I’ve been editing and copyediting these past couple of months, so I’m not going to count rereading my own book about fifty thousand times…)

  • He is Mine and I Have No Other, by Rebecca O’Connor
  • Music, Love, Drugs, War, by Geraldine Quigley
  • The Republic of Motherhood, by Liz Berry
  • The Summer of Us, by Cecilia Vinesse
  • Folk, by Zoe Gilbert
  • Once, by Morris Gleitzman

The Months in Pictures: