Imagine. Your best friend has just published their eighth novel. It’s nominated for the Man Booker Prize, which they’ve won before. They’re also an award-winning poet with two Forward Prize-winning poems, and a T S Eliot Prize-winning collection. They get flown all over the world and put up in 5* hotels so they can speak their great wisdom at international literary festivals. Their events sell out within minutes, and their signing queue stretches for a mile and a half. Every time you walk past a bookshop, their covers wink at you from the windows. They’re also the nicest person in the world, and have just been nominated as most beautiful writer of all time. They’ve just been nominated for a Nobel Prize. The village book club thinks your books are kind of interesting, but nobody writes quite like your best friend.

Don’t worry, I’m not having an emotional crisis. This best friend is fictional.

But we all know what it’s like to see other people having more success than ourselves. Even the most famous writers know what this is like. It can just be a bit difficult to remember that when you’re wallowing in the depths of your own rejections.

So how do you keep your spirits up, when it feels like everyone around you is way more successful than you are?

the writing desk - February 2018

Redefine your idea of success.

We’re so used to talking about success as the opposite of rejection. Did your poem get rejected from that magazine, or was it successful? I know – I do this as well. In all honesty, I’m going to keep doing it here.

But let’s start reshaping our idea of what ‘rejection’ means. I’ve talked a bit about this before, but rejection doesn’t have to be a negative thing. After all, with every ‘thanks but no thanks’ that comes back, you free up your poem / story / whatever to send it out to a different journal or competition. In some ways, every rejection increases your chance of acceptance somewhere else.

But rejection can also help you grow as a writer. It can sometimes take months for that rejection to come through – months in which you’ve been reading, writing, honing your craft. So when the poem comes back with a ‘no thanks’ letter, it’s a chance to take another look at it, and see whether you could improve it. After all, your poetic eye could easily be sharper than it was a couple of months ago.

Even if you look at your original submission and decide it doesn’t need another edit, it can be useful to make some sort of ritual out of receiving a rejection. For instance, I have a spreadsheet where I document all my submissions. When I get a response, I get to colour in the corresponding box in the spreadsheet. It’s a small thing, but it carries the same sense of satisfaction as crossing something off a list.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

Watch what you submit to.

Quite often we talk about submissions in terms of numbers. I know; I’ve done this as well. Last year, I aimed to submit to 100 things over the course of the year. I didn’t quite make it, but that wasn’t really the point; the point was to force myself to put my work out there, and to submit to things I might not otherwise go for. And it worked – last year was hugely successful in terms of my writing career.

But as an approach, it doesn’t work for everyone. If you find you’re getting down about the number of rejections you’re receiving, or if you’re short on time to submit to things, then absolutely narrow your focus. Submit to fewer things, but make them the ones that really fit your work. Make each submission as good as it can possibly be. Submit to things where you have a higher chance of success (so if you’ve only been writing a couple of months, maybe go for the local poetry competition rather than the National Poetry Prize).

I’m not saying you won’t still get rejections if you do this, but it might decrease the ratio slightly. After all, we’re all human. We all need a confidence boost from time to time.

And speaking of confidence boosts…

Celebrate the little things.

This is particularly important for novelists, but it also applies to other kinds of writers as well.

As a novelist, you tend not to get to submit your novel to people till pretty late on in the game. As in, you’ll usually have written a full first draft, and then edited it as much as you can, maybe have workshopped bits of it with your writing group, and then edited it some more. All this before you start querying it with agents, or sending to presses that accept unsolicited submissions, or whatever route you decide to go down.

This can take years. That’s a long time without a confidence boost. Find smaller milestones.

I recently went to the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing in Haworth, and the excellent Claire Malcolm from New Writing North was there, talking about identifying creative milestones.

I knew what mine was. ‘To finish my second novel,’ I thought smugly.

Reader, I haven’t even started writing my second novel yet. It took me a moment before I realised what a stupidly big milestone that is. It’s like learning to read, and your first milestone being to read Ulysses. It’s too big. There are way too many other steps to get through first.

So I’ve come up with new milestones. They may change along the way, but for now they’re:

  • Start drafting. (I spend a lot of time in the planning & note-making stages of writing, so the day I actually sit down to start drafting the book is an important milestone.)
  • 10,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 20,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 30,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 40,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 50,000 words of a rough draft.
  • Finishing a rough first draft, and writing ‘THE END’ in big smug letters on the last page.
  • Completing a workable second draft.
  • Sending off the manuscript to my agent.

Instead of one big goal, these are the smaller milestones I’m going to celebrate along the way.

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

No really. Actually celebrate.

It’s all very well knowing what your personal goals are, and feeling that small sense of satisfaction when you achieve them, but why not actively celebrate them?

One technique I’ve seen a few writers sharing on twitter is the gift-to-self technique. This involves buying yourself a bunch of treats before you start writing, and wrapping them up with labels on the front, telling you when you get to open them.

For example: at 10k words you get a bar of chocolate. At 40k you might get a new pen. When you finish the first draft it could be a bottle of bubbly.

It’s up to you what these gifts are – whatever you think is going to motivate you. It doesn’t even have to be a physical gift. Maybe you’re going to go for a walk somewhere you love after you’ve reached 30k. Or you’ll booked a spa day for the day after you submit to your agent. (Or send it off for querying – whatever stage you’re at.)

I’m planning to be away for most of my milestones, at writing residencies, so I’m going to have to be a bit creative with my rewards. I might not even plan them in advance – just promise myself that I’ll physically celebrate each milestone when it comes around, in whatever way feels right for wherever I am at the time.

Share your successes.

When you celebrate, you don’t have to celebrate alone. I live on my own. I don’t have someone to announce my news to when they get home from work, and to share a glass of bubbly with. If I want to tell people, sometimes it has to be on social media. Sometimes telling someone else about something is the only way to make it feel real. Being proud of your achievements is not the same as boasting.

I repeat: being proud of your achievements is not the same as boasting.

One of my constant sayings, that sums up a lot of my creative ethos, is that as writers, we’re colleagues, not competitors. We should be proud of one another’s achievements. Congratulate other writers on their successes. Give them the opportunity to congratulate you on yours.

If you want to tweet about it, tweet about it. If you want to share it on facebook, or instagram, or snapchat, do. If you want to put it in big fancy letters on your website, go for it. By all means include it in your bio.

Even aside from wanting to celebrate (which is enough of a reason for sharing on its own), sharing your good news gets you onto the radar of other people in the writing community / book industry / arts world etc. And who knows? It may even lead to future opportunities.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

Celebrate the down times too.

For a long time, I didn’t like talking about success on social media. I thought it made me sound big-headed. ‘Oh, look at me, I’ve had a poem accepted into a magazine, aren’t I clever?’ And sure, there’s definitely a way that constantly talking about your own successes can get on people’s nerves. If all anyone ever hears from you is how well you’ve done, then soon you’re going to feel like that fictional best friend at the start of this post.

But social media (and life in general) is multi-faceted and complex. If we only talk about one thing, it gets boring. So we also use it to share opportunities for other writers, to talk about books we like, to engage with politics.

And we can use it to be honest about our rejections.

(Side note: there are ways of talking about rejection without tweeting ‘X magazine rejected my poem and now I feel bitter about it’, and essentially encouraging all your friends in a pile-on against said magazine. A good start is not to name the publication / organisation / whatever that rejected to. After all, they’ll have their reasons, and naming in this context can often sound a bit like shaming, even if that isn’t the way it’s intended.)

Talking publicly about rejection might feel counter-intuitive. After all, isn’t this just another way of announcing to the world that someone somewhere thought your work wasn’t good enough? But honestly, everyone gets rejections. The most famous writers in the world get rejections. Talking about it is just a way to share the truth about what it’s like to be a writer.

If I see a writer I admire talking about their experiences of being rejected, or struggling to meet a deadline, or finding a scene particularly difficult to write, I actually find it heartening. Not in some cruel schadenfreude way, but in the sense of solidarity. Writing can be incredibly solitary, and it can be good to be reminded that I’m not the only one finding it hard.

This beautiful tricksy obsessive mess called creativity? We’re in it together. Let’s celebrate that.

Writing can be a solitary business. As writers, we spend a lot of time inside our own heads, working. But if we’re stuck in our garrets all day long, scribbling away at our latest manuscript, how do we find out what’s going on?

Last week, I created a twitter thread of resources for writers. Most of these are organisations and resources that I wish I’d known about when I started out writing – though some are things we may already know about, but perhaps just need a bit of a reminder.

I thought it might be useful to share those resources as a blog post.

Made yourself a cuppa? Cut yourself that slice of cake? Ok then. Here we go:

  • The Society of Authors is a must-join for all writers. They’re your union, and as such they are great at advocating for writers’ rights. With your membership comes access to a whole bunch of PDF guides (such as a guide for going into schools, or a guide to royaties). If you want specific advice, such as for them to check over your contract with your agent for you, then they can do that. They also offer public liability insurance at a reduced rate for members, and the opportunity to apply for grants to help you complete work in progress.They also run a series of annual awards.
  • For similar reasons, check out The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain.
  • The Arts Council is England’s national funding body (there are equivalents in Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland), and they give out grants. The main options for writers are the Developing Your Creative Practice grant (DYCP) and Project Grants.
  • Run by Arts Council England, Arts Jobs & Arts News are free e-newsletters for anyone in the arts. They’re sent out every Sunday, and are a great way to find out what’s going on in the arts world, and what opportunities are out there.
  • Similarly, Arts Professional covers this sort of content from a position external to the Arts Council, which means they’re not bound by anything to be complimentary about the Arts Council, if necessary. They also have a weekly mailing list, including job opportunities.
  • Have you looked at your regional writing organisation? For me this is New Writing North, who offer support and opportunities for writers all across the north of England – including funding through the Northern Writers’ Awards. (Elsewhere in the country, check out Writing West Midlands, Writing East Midlands, Commonword, Literature Works, New Writing South, Spread the Word & the National Writers’ Centre.) It’s also worth following organisations for regions other than your own. For instance, the National Writers’ Centre in Norwich sometimes has opportunities that are open to writers from anywhere within the UK.
  • If you’re based in Scotland, make sure you’re aware of the Scottish Book Trust, for support for both readers and writers.
  • The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is released annually, and is a highly useful resource, particularly if you’re at a stage in your career where you’ve developed your craft and are querying a manuscript with agents / editors. I’d recommend using it in conjunction with the internet, and the publishers’ / agencies’ own websites. And if you don’t want to buy a copy, then you can often get hold of a copy through your local library.
  • NAWE (or, the National Association of Writers in Education) is another membership scheme, for – you guessed it – writers in education. They offer advice as well as free public liability insurance if you’re a member. But it’s also useful to check out even if you aren’t involved in education in any sort of way, as they often post opportunities and information about funding on their website.
  • If you write (or illustrate) children’s books or YA, then it’s worth getting to know about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), who support writers of work for younger readers.
  • If you’re looking to sharpen your creative craft, then check out Arvon. Arvon courses run for a week (or sometimes a long weekend), and are led by professional writers. They can be a great way to engage with some incredible tutors, and to meet new writers among your peers on the course. Arvon sometimes have bursary places, either means tested or for young people (or both). Other places that offer short-term writing courses are Ty Newydd in Wales, and Moniack Mhor in Scotland.
  • For poets, check out the Poetry Foundation, for their online collection of poems and articles about poetry. They also have a newsletter you can sign up to.
  • Poets should also check out The Poetry School, for blog posts, courses & tutorials.
  • And writers of all kinds can find coaching courses, and help with beating procrastination, on Prolifiko.
  • On a local level, seek out local writing groups that you can join to workshop your writing, and hunt for open mic nights where you can share your work. Library noticeboards & regional writing organisations are good places to find these. And if there isn’t one already, start one!
  • If you’re a young poet (or even if you’re a not-so-young poet), sign up to the Young Poets’ Network mailing list. They run opportunities for young writers, and publish poems and articles that are worth reading whatever your age.
  • I highly recommend that anyone who’s even remotely interested in writing follows Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) on twitter. As well as being an excellent voice for authors’ rights, her #TenTweets threads are always good advice for writers.
  • One mainly (although not solely) for female writers: Mslexia publishes and supports writing by women, as well as running annual competitions for female writers in various genres. They also share advice on writing, which is applicable to writers of any gender.
  • If you write musical theatre, then you ought to be aware of Mercury Musical Development and Musical Theatre Network, for support of new writing – including pitching opportunities & resource sharing.
  • Another one for poets: check out the National Poetry Library – in person if you can get to London, or even just the competitions and journals listings pages of their website, if you can’t make it there geographically.
  • Speaking of libraries, don’t neglect your public library. I repeat: DON’T NEGLECT YOUR PUBLIC LIBRARY. Whether for author events, or workshops, or access to the internet, or a warm place to work away from the distractions of being at home, or just, you know, for the old-fashioned resource of BOOKS – don’t forget what you can access with a simple library card.
  • And did you know you can get a Reader Pass for the British Library? Here’s how. And the Library also offers free Discovery & one-to-one sessions. All highly useful if you need to do some research for your creative project.
  • You don’t always have to go to a physical library to use their collections. New York Public Library, for example, has digital collections that can be accessed from anywhere on the planet. Useful for research, or just for general inspiration. (Their image archive is particularly good.)
  • Every writer loves free money. If your work is published, then make sure you’re registered for ALCS and PLR payments, when your work is copied or broadcast, or borrowed from a library.
  • If you want feedback on a work-in-progress, then The Literary Consultancy offers a well-respected manuscript assessment service. (There are a lot of organisations that offer this service, but it can be difficult to judge the standard of them. TLC is respected across the industry.) They also offer Free Reads for writers from low income backgrounds, and for LGBTQ+ writers.
  • If you’re looking to do a residency somewhere, then ResArtis isn’t a bad place to start searching. The database is massive, and caters for all artforms, so it takes some time to trawl through. The residencies listed are also pretty varied in terms of what they offer – from those that offer full board + travel + stipend, to those where the writer is expected to pay (which feel a bit more like a glorified hotel). Make yourself a big pot of coffee and give yourself a couple of hours to search through for the ones that might suit you.
  • Or, if you’re looking for funding, Jerwood Arts funding opportunities are highly competitive, but potentially life-changing if you can get them.
  • For opportunities abroad, keep an eye on the British Council. We live in an increasingly global world, and if you’re interested in sharing cultural ideas & creative practice across national borders, then there could be opportunities here for you. Sometimes these are aimed at organisations, sometimes at individuals.
  • Check out Angela T. Carr’s blog: adreamingskin.com. She publishes the most comprehensive monthly list of poetry opportunities I’ve ever come across. It’s always worth perusing to see which journals and competitions have open submission windows during that month.
  • There are also numerous writers with great blogs, sharing poems and prose, and talking about various aspects of life as a writer. As well as this one (obviously – but if you’re reading this they you’re already here), I’d recommend Stella Duffy’s and Kim Moore’s.

I hope you found this list useful. There will, of course, be things I’ve left off, and I can only apologise for that. Just goes to show how many resources for writers there are out there!

And lastly, as I said on the twitter thread: if you’ve found this list at all helpful, please do consider showing your thanks by voting for me in the Edinburgh First Book Awards. It’d mean a lot to me, and it’s so simple that you can do it while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil.

Thank you!

Eleven years since I left school, and September still feels like back-to-school month. I feel as though I should be out buying new pens and novelty rubbers and things. I guess I did start a new notebook this month, so maybe that counts?

After festival-season in August, September has been a month of quiet work. I quite like months like this from time to time: a chance to get back on top of the admin, and quietly work away at the writing. Not too many events. The odd workshop. A chance to think.

That said, this month hasn’t been entirely without festivals. Last week I went to the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing in Haworth, with three other Cumbrian writers. It was a lovely festival: big enough that there was a really interesting range of speakers, but small enough that it was possible to go to everything. It also felt incredibly honest, with writers, editors, agents and booksellers sharing their experiences in a way that felt generous and encouraging.

One thing I took away from the weekend (other than a horrid cold – I guess that’s what happens when you visit the 19th century?) was to remember all the things I used to know. When you’re starting out as a writer, people will often tell you that you need to practise self-care, that you need to spend time focusing on craft and not to rush, that you need to celebrate smaller milestones along the way. But I’d forgotten a lot of that. My next milestone was ‘finish writing the second novel’. (Side-note: I haven’t even started writing the second novel yet.) That’s too much. A novel’s big; if I don’t get to celebrate success until I’ve finished the thing, then that’s a long time to wait. A person can get pretty down in that time. My decision? To set myself some markers in the interim. When I get to 10k words, for example, I’ll take a moment to be proud of that achievement. It’s about motivation. I may write a blog post about this in the future.

And speaking of successes, I haven’t been taking enough time to celebrate them lately, so here are a few that have happened over the past couple of months:

KSP residency: The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre is in Perth. Perth Australia, that is. And I’ve been invited to be their Emerging Writer in Residency in April 2020. Going to pack my strappy tops and flip flops! (Sorry, singlets & thongs.)

Gladstone’s Library Writer in Residence: Next May, I’m heading over the border into Wales, to spend a month writing at Gladstone’s Library. This is something I’m particularly excited about – partly because I’ve looked at pictures of the library, and it looks like the dream place to sit and draft a novel. But also because I’ve heard glowing recommendations, both for the library itself, and for their scones! Expect me to be significantly larger by next summer…

University of Canberra Poetry Prize longlisting: Another one with an Australian theme – I recently learned that I’ve been longlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize, which is announced at the end of October. Last year I managed to make the shortlist, so keeping my fingers crossed for this year. Either way, though, it’s a huge prize, so just to make the longlist is a fantastic affirmation.

Mslexia: And finally, this month I achieved a decade-long ambition, and got a poem into the most recent issue of Mslexia. It’s always lovely when a publication likes your work enough to print it, but there’s something particularly special about it when it’s a publication you’ve been aiming towards ever since you start to write poetry.

In the interest of balance, I should also say that I’ve received 17 rejections so far this year, out of 22 things I’ve heard back from. It isn’t all cause for celebration – which of course makes it doubly important to celebrate the good news when it does come along.

And, last but not least, the next couple of weeks are your last chance to vote for My Name is Monster in the Edinburgh First Book Award. It’s run on public vote, and voting only takes a moment, so please do click through and support!

The Month in Books:

It’s been a slightly slower reading month than last month. I sometimes find it works like that, at least for me: that reading, like writing, comes in waves. Perhaps that means that next month I’ll read absolutely loads? Still, if you’re only going to read four books in a month, these are a pretty good four to choose:

  • Walt Whitman Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets)
  • The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
  • The Island Child, by Molly Aitken
  • Black Car Burning, by Helen Mort

The Month in Pictures:

We’re well into September, now. The new school year is underway, and with the initial rush over, some schools will be starting to think about getting writers in. And some writers & arts organisations will be starting to think about going into classrooms.

I’ve been going into schools to run writing workshops professionally for the past 6 years. I worked with schools, children and older young people on a voluntary basis for 4 years before that. I’ve seen teachers struggling under the weight of what’s expected of them. I’ve seen teachers who are hugely engaged and passionate about their job. (These two categories are, obviously, not mutually exclusive.)

I’ve run workshops that have been a joy to facilitate. I’ve had workshops where it’s been a struggle to get the children (and the teachers) to engage. I’ve run one workshop where I wanted to scream in frustration. (I may write more about these specific incidents in a future post.)

All of this has added up to a lot of thoughts on the relationship between a teacher and a visiting writer, both in the classroom, and before and after the workshop.

So I decided to write a couple of blog posts setting out some of those thoughts. Next week, I’ll give some advice about what writers ought to think about when going into schools. But for now, it’s the turn of the teachers:

Arts Award Discover workshops

Writers in Schools: A Few Notes for Teachers:

There are joys and pitfalls to teaching. Of course there are – and you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. On the one hand, that moment when a child finally gets something they’ve been struggling over? That’s the moment that can make your heart soar. But the pressure and the paperwork and the marking? I’m not surprised if that gets you down from time to time.

So here are a couple of notes on working with writers, that might make life easier for everyone:

1 – It’s supposed to be fun.

Whenever a visitor comes in, it’s exciting for the children. New faces always are. But it should be fun for you as well. This is a chance for you to learn something new as well. It’s an opportunity for you to think about writing & creativity in a way that doesn’t have to be goal-focused. It’s also a chance for you to see the children in your class engaging with work in a different way. It’s a chance for you to work more closely with some of the children, while somebody else is leading the session.

But all of this relies on you being present and engaged. Some of the best things I’ve experienced from teachers in workshops:

  • Helping the pupils to link what they’re learning about in the writing workshop with other things they’ve covered in class – particularly if something connects to a special topic. (For example, I was once running a winter-themed workshop based around Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Snow’, which the teacher helped them link to their project on World War I & remembrance day.)
  • Building a larger topic around the workshop & the themes it raises.
  • Displaying the work created in the workshop – either on the wall or creating a booklet of the work which goes in the school library.
  • Sharing the work produced at a special assembly – particularly if the rest of the school is there to hear it and / or the parents/carers are invited.
  • Sharing experience of the workshop with other teachers in the school.

And some of teachers’ most unhelpful behaviour has been:

  • Spending the workshop catching up on marking. (This is not PPA time.)
  • Talking to individual children (either about the workshop or, even more commonly, about a completely unrelated piece of work) while the visiting writer is trying to explain something to the group.
  • Leaving the classroom entirely to put up a display in the adjoining corridor.
  • Telling the writer (in front of the children) that poetry is pointless as they don’t have to write it in the exam.

Creative writing workshop in school for Beneath The Boughs poetry exhibition

2 – It should be enjoyable for the writer, too.

If a writer doesn’t enjoy working in schools, then they’re not the right person to be running the workshop. But just because a writer enjoys working in schools in general, it doesn’t mean they’re going to enjoy every single workshop. I’ve certainly had workshops that I didn’t enjoy – usually for the reasons listed in the point above.

Because 99% of the time, an unenjoyable workshop is not the fault of the children, but of the teacher. I’m aware that soudns accusatory, but the flip side is that, as a teacher, it’s almost totally within your power to make the workshop enjoyable for the writer – by making them feel welcome (talking to the writer in the staff room helps – I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in a staff room and been completely ignored for an entire lunch hour), helping the children to get excited about the visit, and making sure the writer’s job isn’t made more difficult than necessary. (Again, see above.)

3 – Treat the writer professionally.

There’s this weird myth that writers write solely because they enjoy it, and therefore don’t need to be paid. Ok, so the first part is generally true, but the second part definitely isn’t. Writing is a job like any other, and writers (just like everyone else) have bills to pay.

When you’re booking the workshop, you should agree the fee with the writer. Often, the writer will have a standard rate for a school workshop. (This could include travel costs, or they may charge extra for these. Similarly, they may charge extra for additional requests, such as incorporating a special topic, or doing a reading in an assembly.)

Most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.

I repeat: most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.

There are a few exceptions – such as when an author is promoting a book that they’re planning to sell to the pupils, or when the writer’s fee is being covered by a third party, such as a library or an arts organisation. But mostly, you should expect to pay. You’re paying for the writer’s professional skill and experience, after all.

Consequently, there should be a contract between the school and the writer – or at the very least, a written agreement of what the writer will be offering, and what the school will offer in return. (If the workshop is booked through a third party, such as an arts organisation, then they will have this agreement with the writer, and your agreement will be with the arts organisation.) It should be understood what will happen if, for example, the workshop has to be cancelled – either by the school or by the writer.

Unlike most teachers and school staff, the writer is almost certain to be working freelance – so it’s doubly important that, when the writer submits their invoice, it gets paid on time. It’s all about recognising the writer as a professional, and not leaving them unable to buy groceries that month.

Arts Award Discover, Shap Primary School

4 – If you want something specific from a writer, don’t be afraid to ask.

Sometimes, it’s hard to find space for things like a writing workshop within the limits of the curriculum. Writers understand this – and although most of the time we don’t agree with it, we recognise that this directive comes from the government and not from the individual schools. We know that teachers, like most of us, never have enough time in the day.

But there are ways to incorporate a writing workshop into the regular learning day. The most obvious, perhaps, is to link it with literacy. I’ve run workshops within literacy sessions, incorporating a recap on similes / metaphors / kennings…

But I’ve also run workshops to tie in with special topics. You’re doing a class topic on the jungle? Or on Greek myths? Or on the Anglo Saxons? Or the Victorians? Or the arctic? I can run a workshop to tie in with this. (And yes, all of these are examples of topics I’ve run workshops on in the past, at the request of the teacher.)

Unless a writer is promoting a specific book (in which case, you’ll probably have a slightly different arrangement with the writer anyway), they may well be able to adjust a workshop to fit a theme. At the very least, you can ask. The worst that can happen is that the writer says it isn’t possible.

Of course, if you’re going to request something like this, make sure you do it when you’re initially booking the writer. In some circumstances, the writer may need to charge an extra fee in order to do this, as it might mean planning a whole new workshop, or working in a different way, so it’s good for them to know straight away so they can factor that into their quote to you. At the very least, you need to make sure you’ve made this request before the writer’s already gone and planned / prepared the workshop. And certainly don’t leave it till the writer rocks up on the day. (I’ve had this before. Needless to say, the teacher was greeted with a firm ‘sorry, but no.’)

5 – The children should be present in the sessions.

If you want a class to engage with a visiting writer, they have to be in the classroom (or the library, or wherever the workshop’s being held). Obvious, right? But the number of times I’ve got to a school to run a workshop, and half the class haven’t been present for a chunk of it, is staggering.

A common scenario is this: I get to a school to run a 1.5hr workshop over an afternoon. There are 30 children in the class. Once the register has been taken, about 5 minutes into the workshop, 10 of the children disappear. ‘They have IT on a Tuesday afternoon,’ says the teacher, ‘In groups.’ The 10 children are out for about half an hour. By the time they come back, the bulk of the introductory exercises are done, and we’re starting on writing our poems, leaving the 10 children struggling to catch up, and me having to rush them through the first part of the workshop in hushed voices so as not to disturb the rest of the class. Meanwhile, the next 10 children (who have just started getting into what they’re writing) are whisked away for their own half hour of IT. This happens with each of the three groups – with the result that none of them engaged with the full workshop.

I know this is common practice in schools – for different groups of children to be doing different things at the same time, and for children to be in and out of class for things like reading practice or extra maths or music lessons. I know that full-time teachers work like this all the time – and believe me, I have huge admiration for anyone who’s able to work like that.

But if you invite a writer into the classroom to run a session, they need to be able to run the whole session to the full group. As much as anything else, it just comes across as rude, and suggests the school places no value on what the visiting writer has to offer.

But it’s more than that. The workshop is an experience for the children. It isn’t like English, where there’ll be another English lesson next week. It’s a one-off. And sure, some of the children might just see it as a doss lesson – a chance to not worry about how a piece of work is going to be marked. But that playful imagination is important, and something we’re in danger of losing with the current curriculum.

And for some of the children, this could be a workshop they remember for decades to come, and which inspires them well into their adult career. I know this, because I was one of them.

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Next post: Writing in Schools: A Few Tips for Writers

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

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!