I fell pretty far short of the mark (only 41 rejections, I’m afraid), but that isn’t really the point. The point was that, by aiming for such a huge number of rejections, I would take the fear out of submitting applications for things in the first place. After all, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get accepted for something when you’re only counting the rejections.
Plenty of writers get downhearted when they receive a rejection letter. Plenty of others use reverse psychology on themselves, and keep / frame / paper their downstairs loo with their rejections. Both of these reactions are totally natural. After all, human beings are social animals (even writers), and rejection is a scary thing, especially when millennia of evolution have instilled in you this idea that acceptance is key to survival.
But for writers, I’m afraid rejection is par for the course – no matter how good you are.
Last year, I had a good year. I got accepted on Penguin Random House’s WriteNow mentoring scheme, I had a pamphlet published and a show at Edinburgh Fringe, and I even won a couple of poetry competitions.
But I also received those 41 rejections. The problem is, those rejections are largely silent – probably because I don’t post about them, either on here or on social media. This is my own coping strategy: rather than weeping or celebrating, I note the rejection down, shrug it off, and then move on to the next application. But perhaps it gives a false impression of my success.
I have a number of friends who are writers. Some of them are very positive and upbeat about their careers – and when you look at their success, it’s easy to see why. (Though you can bet that they’ll have their fair share of rejections, too.) Some of my writer friends are less upbeat. I’ve spoken to people who feel that nothing ever goes their way; they hardly ever manage to get their poetry in magazines, or their short stories placed in competitions, etc. It’s understandable that this gets people down – especially when all your friends seem to be doing so well around you. It’s easy to compare the toughest bits of your own life with the best bits of somebody else’s.
So this year, I’m aiming for 100 applications and submissions.
Instead of noting down my rejections, I’m going to make a note of my applications & submissions, and then record the outcome: success / partial success / rejection.
At the end of the year, I want to be able to see not just the number of rejections I’ve received, but the percentage. For me, this is the only way to be completely transparent about how tough it can be to be a writer – so that I can share these figures, and show that it definitely isn’t all acceptance letters and launch parties.
I’ll share my rejection / success ratio (all being well, there will be graphs!) and I’ll also share the number of applications & submissions I manage to make, whether I achieve my aim of 100, or fall slightly short – or even exceed my own expectations.
Think of it as data sharing at the end of a scientific experiment.
But of course, the more data you have, the more accurate the experiment. Anyone else fancy aiming for 100 submissions & applications this year? It’s less than 2 a week.
One of the things I love about blogging is being able to rediscover my thoughts: being able to look back on a whole year of writing just by scrolling back through my posts. Perhaps the most revealing is looking at where I was a year ago, and comparing it to where I am now.
So often, it feels like we’re not making progress. At least that’s how it is for me, and I’m sure for so many other people out there, writers and otherwise. When you’re living life on it’s day-to-day basis, it can be hard to see the larger changes taking place – even when you’re having a good year, which 2017 has definitely been for me.
Looking back on my end-of-year update at the end of 2016, things have definitely changed. I’ve now been working mostly freelance for two full years. At the end of year 1, I was wrestling with the idea of being an ’emerging’ writer, and wondering when a writer gets to say they’ve ’emerged’. I may still be classed as an ’emerging writer’ for the purposes of funding bids / applications etc, but if the process of becoming a writer is like a chick being born, then this year I’ve definitely hatched.
This year, I’ve published a pamphlet. Breaking the Surface came out in June 2017, published by Flipped Eye. I ended up having a plethora of launches (one in the Engine Bay at Eden Arts, a joint launch with Pauline Yarwood, and a launch with open mic night at Cakes & Ale in Carlisle). After so many years of working towards a debut pamphlet, it feels slightly weird to finally have it out in the open, but a wonderful kind of weird – especially as I’m now (very slowly) working towards a full collection.
It’s also been a year of prizes. There’s a theory among poets that prizes come in threes. I think one must have snuk in under the radar, though, because this year I’ve had some sort of success in four separate awards: I was lucky enough to win the Jane Martin Poetry Prize and the Ware Poetry Prize, to come second in the Tannahill International Poetry Prize, and to be shortlisted for the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize – all within a couple of months of each other! I guess things really do happen all at once.
Perhaps my achievement of the year is getting a word in the Oxford English Dictionary. As part of the Free The Word project, connected with this year’s National Poetry Day celebrations, I was commissioned by BBC local radio to write a poem based on a Cumbrian dialect word. Naturally, I decided to write about twining (moaning / complaining) – a word in such common parlance up here that I never actually realised was dialect until I went to university, and suddenly realised nobody had a clue what I was talking about. I was then filmed performing the poem; you can read / watch it here.
On top of that, I’ve also been involved in a few festivals this year.
In March, I was the in-house blogger for StAnza International Poetry Festival – a festival I’ve volunteered at for the past few years, and always one of the first things in my new diary each year. Especially this year, as I’ll be reading at the festival in March 2018!
Skip forward a few months, and I helped create a guerrilla poetry event for Kendal Poetry Festival. Working with Dove Cottage Young Poets, we created postcard poems, which we then handed out in Kendal on market day. My particular highlights of that event were the woman who told me she’d had a terrible morning so I’d just made her day, the man who quoted William Henry Davies to me, and the armed policeman putting a poem inside his jacket so he could ‘carry it next to his heart’.
I also created a guerrilla poetry project for Lakes Alive festival: this time, a Poetry Cairn. One of the things that never fails to bring me joy about poetry is the way it can bring people together. For the project, people were encouraged to think about what poetry meant to them, and to write the answer on a stone, which we gradually built into a cairn. The best part of the project, however, was the conversation this request inevitably sparked, with people reciting poetry to me, talking shyly about their own writing, or just musing on what poetry was.
Just a week later, I was at Rheged in Penrith, hosting an Adult Youth Club for C-Art Festival, featuring the wonderful Loud Poets collective, and Edinburgh-based band Ekobirds. There was poetry and music, naturally. But like any good youth club, we also had crayons, plastecine and a quiz.
And speaking of youth…
This year I’ve delivered a number of workshops in schools. I’m still working with my wonderful group at St Patrick’s School, through the Wordsworth Trust. It’s such a rare privelege to keep returning to the same group over an extended period of time, getting to see them develop and grow, both as children but also in their writing. They’re a fantastic group, who never cease to surprise and impress me with their words and ideas.
But I’ve also delivered some hugely enjoyable one-off workshops, such as workshops for National Poetry Day (also with the Wordsworth Trust), and a number of workshops for New Writing North, which led to a couple of showcase events and an anthology of the students’ work.
Phew! Talk about a busy year – and it hasn’t all been about poetry…
At the end of 2016, I started writing fiction. On the off-chance that my prose-writing wasn’t ridiculous, I submitted the first 1000 words of a novel to WriteNow: Penguin Random House’s new mentoring scheme. And, just before Christmas last year, I heard I’d been accepted onto the Manchester Insight Day. Apparently around 3000 people applied for WriteNow in its first year, and this meant that I was in the top 150. That alone gave me the confidence boost I needed to actually continue writing the novel, and to believe that the idea I could write fiction wasn’t such a crazy one after all.
Since the Insight Day in February, it’s all been a little bit of a whirlwind, to be honest. Over the month or so that followed, I heard that, from the insight day, I’d been shortlisted for the year-long mentoring scheme run by Penguin Random House. After a nerve-wracking phone interview (in which the PRH fire alarm went off and my interview had to be paused while everyone evacuated the building), I learned that I’d made it through. Out of the original 3000, twelve of us were selected to take part in a year-long mentoring programme.
Since then, I’ve drafted and redrafted (and redrafted and redrafted) the novel. I’ve had some hugely beneficial feedback meetings with my editor, and am currently about to embark on Draft 7.
I’ve been to a wonderful meet-up weekend, and spent time with the other mentored writers, who are all lovely. I also had a wonderful day at the Newcastle Insight Day, where I was asked to give a talk to 50 shortlisted writers for the next round of the mentoring scheme – including friend & fellow Cumbrian poet Polly Atkin, who has since been accepted on Year 2 of WriteNow. Go Cumbria! (If you fancy it, you can read the talk I gave here.)
And most recently (just in the past week, in fact), I’ve got an agent. I’m super excited to be represented by Lucy Luck, at Conville + Walsh (part of Curtis Brown). Such a great early Christmas present!
As if poetry & fiction weren’t enough, this has also been a pretty theatre-heavy year.
In 2017, I achieved my long-standing ambition of taking a show to Edinburgh Fringe. I worked with my friend & composer Stephen Hyde to rewrite the show we created in 2015 (then called Yesterday), to create a very different production: The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash.
The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash played throughout the Fringe at C Royale: a new C Venues-run location on George St. We had a fantastic team (thanks, FoxTale Productions!) and a wonderfully talented cast & band. So no wonder we got some good reviews!
It’s also been an amazing year for travel. Aside from spending the best part of August in Edinburgh (a city I love and could always spend more time in), I’ve also been to Cambodia and Vietnam, and then to Iceland with the wonderful Jessi Rich.
The Year in Pictures:
Editing the novel
Tannahill International Poetry Prize 2017
Bluebells in Cumbria
Afternoon Tea at Sharrow Bay Hotel
The Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2017
The Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2017
St Andrews: West Sands
Reading at WordMess open mic night (thanks to Rob Fraser for the photo)
I usually feel as though things wind down as I get into November. Like tying things up before the end of the year and a new chapter begins in January.
To a degree, that’s been the case this month, but it’s also been a month of getting things moving. I’ve delivered a few schools workshops for the Wordsworth Trust – including to my regular Yr 5 group at St Patrick’s School in Workington, who are such a joy to work with, and whose growing confidence in their writing is a privilege to watch. Listening to them talk about why they liked different types of poems was heart-warming: from the children who liked ‘how to’ poems because it’s an inherently kind form, to those who loved confessional poetry because it was a chance to own up to all their naughty moments without being told off!
I’ve also taken part in a few workshops this month, and I have one or two more before the year is out. Trying to keep the creativity going over the next month, and not stagnate in a puddle of mulled wine and chocolate coins.
But if I’m honest, poetry has been forced to take a bit of a back seat this month. Instead, it’s been (nearly) all about the novel. I had another feedback meeting with my editor, which was followed by a get-together of all of this year’s WriteNow mentored writers, at the Penguin Random House offices on the Strand. It was so good to meet the other writers – many of whom I’ve been chatting to on whatsapp for the past 6 months or so. As well as the editorial support and access to contacts that the WriteNow scheme has given me, I’m so grateful for the support network of other writers that’s come about among the mentees. It’s really reinforced for me how important it is to have other writers to turn to, whether in a crisis or just for a bit of TLC when you’re struggling on a tricky bit of the novel. The WriteNow group is great for that.
But now it’s back to catching up on all the poetry-related things I didn’t do during November, as well as all the applications / funding bids / emails etc that I put off while I was getting the novel manuscript up to standard (which seems to have been a recurring theme this year). Especially as I’ve just spent the past couple of days in Vienna (Christmas markets are the best)!
So maybe not so much winding down for Christmas, as that feeling of doing your homework on the morning bus…
Ah well. Here’s to a busy December!
(Oh, and in other news, I’m now on my third cold in a month, which has to be some sort of record. Fingers crossed I can chase it away soon! And yes, this is a plea for sympathy – and soup, if anyone fancies making me any…?)
The month in books:
The Huntress Sea, by Sarah Driver
Kumukanda, by Kayo Chingonyi
Fish Can Sing, by Halldor Laxness
Spill Simmer Falter Wither, by Sara Baume
Currently reading: Night Sky with Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong
Last night I went to see the fantastic Andrew McMillan perform at Poem & a Pint. He read from his multi-award-winning (make that multi-multi-award-winning) collection, Physical, and then tantalised us with material from his upcoming collection, Playtime.
Playtime doesn’t come out till next year, but in the meantime, here’s on of the poems I performed at one of the open mic slots last night. As you may have guessed, it’s titled after a Joni Mitchell song. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize and features in my pamphlet, Breaking the Surface(Flipped Eye, 2017):
You’re in My Blood like Holy Wine
The nights we came home drunk and every night,
we sat side by side, toes curled over the cliff
of the bed in your Oxford bedsit, and talked
about nothing. I know this, because it struck me
how precisely we controlled our breath,
how intricate each flex and shiver of skin
for words that no one cared about. We talked
about next door, the radio constant
through the brickwork, clutching at stations
before moving on. Sometimes, our arms
brushed and for a second, I spiralled
like smoke. There were always cigarettes
and the faint smell of apples, your burgundy
sweater, and the bristled curve of your throat.
There were dark thumbprints in the bowls
of old wine glasses, stacks of plates
like unopened letters, crumbs
sharp as insects littering the rug –
and all the words I didn’t know how to say
were crows, flapping their frantic wings
against the inside of my mouth.
I swallowed, and they clawed my stomach
raw and sick. I’ve tried to drown them
in spirits, thick and toxic as the dark,
drown them till they tasted of nothing
but iron and burnt toast, and my body
was a smudge of wings on a pebble beach.
I’ve tried to speak. Once, I twisted my fingers
in the duvet, as if there would be ripples
that could reach you: your solid, immovable legs.
You shut the blinds, switched on the desk lamp
and Joni Mitchell – how I could drink a case of you and I would still be on my feet – but before the end
you cut the track to watch the trailer
for the new James Bond. You said, I know how you feel about me, and I believed you.
Remember the Church of the Assumption
of Our Lady in Mosta? Where the bomb
that plummeted through the roof in 1942
into the middle of a morning mass
without exploding was still on display,
and the little card proclaimed this a miracle
in several languages. Remember
how we watched it for almost twenty minutes,
how its silence filled the room
till we imagined we could hear it ticking:
a gunmetal heart; the weight of a hammer
raised above a head or bell
about to be struck; the stretched skin
of a drum anticipating thunder.
Or maybe it was just our own blood
beating against our ears like fists
against a door. Remember how I said, I wish it would do something drastic, I wish it would explode?
If we weren’t certain before, then I think it’s now safe to say that winter is finally here. It’s dark in the early evening, and I’m scraping frost off the car every morning.
All of which makes me think of time.
Time is something that is key to writing. After all, words exist within time. Meter measures out a pace and governs the passage of time within a poem. We’re taught early on that stories have a beginning, middle and end (whether or not they are told in that order), and these also serve to govern the time of the story.
So this month, I want to create a time-related prompt. Specifically, this prompt is related to the before-ness of time.
I want you to write about the moment before something happens.
It could be something joyous. It could be something tragic, something dramatic, something that will leave the world reeling. Perhaps a house fire. Perhaps the moment before a child falls off a cliff, or the split second before a team scores a touchdown. Maybe the moment before Neil Armstrong’s boot touches the surface of the moon, or the second before impact when the meteorite wipes out the dinosaurs.
Whatever it is, make it something big. Something significant – either to the world at large, or to the world of a single character.
But here’s the catch: I don’t want you to describe the event. You can mention it, if you like, to add weight and context to your piece. But make the focus of your writing the moment before. When everything weighs in the balance. When the scales could tip in either direction and everything echoes through possibility. When the world is still unchanged.
Describe it in detail. Image a freeze-frame, in that one second before the event. Once you’ve frozen the frame, then press play, but in slow motion. Picture the build-up to the big event happening frame by frame. Notice everything. Is there a shadow of foreboding? Maybe, maybe not. The weight of the piece comes from knowing what’s about to happen next.
Well, it’s officially autumn. The shops are filled with decorations for several different holidays at once, and I’m not sure if I should be preparing for Christmas, Halloween, Bonfire Night or all three. Unusually for me, though, the writing has really only been focussed on one project this month.
With a deadline of 31st October, I’ve been slogging away at the latest draft of the novel.
Coming from writing poetry, editing a novel has proved to be a wholly different experience. With poetry, I find the drafting process challanging, and the editing process significantly easier. After all, the actual idea is already on paper – all that’s left to do is shape it into its best form. And really that’s a process a bit like painting, as most of the time you can see the whole poem on the page and work with it either as a complete entity, or zoom in on a particular word or phrase. With a novel, it just feels so big, it’s impossible to hold it all in my head at once.
So that’s been the big focus this month.
Of course, as with any job in the arts, it isn’t all about the actual writing. This month I’ve also read at Borderlines Festival, as well as having a couple of interviews, which is always interesting. I’ve been in the November edition of Cumbria Life, and spoken to Amy Lord, who blogs at Ten Penny Dreams. You can read Amy’s blog post here: WriteNow: An Interview with Author and Poet Katie Hale
I’ve also been to a few poetry workshops this month, which has had me desperate to get back to writing poetry. Working on just a single project is wonderful in some ways, as it allows such in-depth focus. But at the same time, it reminds me that I don’t want to limit myself to one form of writing. It’s like an itch. Here’s hoping November will be filled with creative variety!
The month in books:
Not many books this month, unfortunately. That is, unless you count re-reading my own manuscript several billion times.
The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter
Grown Up Poetry Needs To Leave Me Alone, by Carly Brown
October is the month of Halloween, so for this month’s prompt I’m suggesting a little bit of necromancy.
One of the things that always fascinates me about poetry (and about writing in general) is the way it is always a balance between the known and unknown, the explained and the imagined, the writing and the reading. How much is the writer telling us, and how much do we have to work out for ourselves? How much is recognisable and familiar, and how much is completely new to us? A piece of writing where we recognise nothing may be a great feat of imagination, but it requires too big an ask of the reader. On the flip side, a piece of writing where everything is so familiar that there’s nothing to surprise us may be easy to understand, but it does little to retain our interest. Writing, like so many forms of creativity, is about balance.
One way to achieve this balance is to take something recognisable and give it a new angle. Set a familiar story in a new location. Pick up a person we all know and drop them in a completely alien environment. Put Cinderella on a Blackpool hen party. Sleeping Beauty in a coma in a hospital ward. Hansel & Gretel in a refugee camp.
This is something Carol Ann Duffy does in a number of poems in The World’s Wife, giving stories and myths and historical figures a contemporary setting. In his newest collection, The Unaccompanied, Simon Armitage sets an episode from The Odyssey in Poundland.
So that’s my challenge for this month:
Take a figure from history, or a story, or a myth, and put them somewhere in today’s world.
How do they react to what’s around them? You could write the poem with your character confused by modern technological developments, as they probably would be if they’d been time-travelled across the years. Or you could keep the character the same, but put them in the modern world as though it’s their natural habitat. What new light does this process shed on the character? What new light does it shed on the modern setting?