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

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

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

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

Cairngorms

September: A Few Good Things

Contains Strong Language:

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

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

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

Winter Droving film

A top secret project:

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

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

beach

Getting away from it all:

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

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

Thin Places

The Month in Books:

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

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

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

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

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

The Month in Pictures:

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

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

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

What does it mean to write in isolation?

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

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

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

And yet I felt lonely.

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

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

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

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

An avenue of autumnal trees in a Brussels park

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

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

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

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

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

Isolated writing in the time of coronavirus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A post about anxiety, cultivating creativity, and online resources for writers.

Three weeks ago, after passing through three major international airports in my attempt to get home from the Falkland Islands, I went into two-week self-isolation. Except that it doesn’t feel like three weeks ago. It feels like two days – and also about seventeen years. I don’t know whether anyone else has experienced this, but for me, time seems to be in limbo. The days just roll over one another, and it would be far too easy to spend them all staring into space, or at a screen, or at the birds in the garden. (NB: I have definitely done all of these things since lockdown began.)

Let’s start by saying that this wasn’t the post I was expecting to write for today. The one I’d scheduled was an update on how travelling for multiple consecutive weeks was affecting my writing process.

Obviously, I’m not currently travelling. I got about halfway through my epic trip (Argentina, Uruguay, Antarctica, South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, and Australia), before coming home. In fact, I was en route to Melbourne when Australia closed its borders, and I had to spend a frantic hour at Dubai airport, trying to persuade the Emirates airline staff to put me on a flight back to Manchester instead. (Luckily, they did – and when the lovely woman at the desk handed me the ticket, I actually burst into tears. But that’s another story.)

Aeroplane wing over the Falkland Islands

So now what?

Right now I should have been in the middle of a 3-week writing residency at the KSP Writers’ Centre, in Perth. Part of me wanted to host my own in-isolation residency at home. After all – I don’t have to go anywhere, and isn’t that one of the joys of a writing residency? But I’ve also been finding it difficult to focus over the past few weeks. Which begs the question:

Should I be using this lockdown time to write?

I’ve seen countless posts about this on twitter. People saying that the lockdown represents ‘ideal writing conditions’. People saying how much writing they’ve managed to accomplish now they’re not having to go to work. People commenting how they’re finding it impossible to write right now. People despairing that suddenly stories hold no interest for them any more, as how can fiction compete with our current reality? People clinging to stories and poems as lifelines.

In short: there is no right answer.

There was an excellent Anne Enright quotation doing the rounds on twitter a while ago, from an article in the Guardian:

‘Honestly, there is a lot to be said for tooling about all day, looking up recipes and not making them, not bothering to paint the living room and failing to write a novel. In the middle of the messy non-event called your mid-afternoon, you might get something – a thought to jot down, a good paragraph, a piece of gossip to text a pal. Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you. Try not to confuse the urge to get something done with the idea that you are useless. Try not to confuse the urge to contact someone with the thought that you are unloved. Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine.’

So let’s talk about solitude.

As writers, we often crave solitude. That time away from work colleagues or family or friends, where we can just be on our own, inside our own head, to write. Some of us travel hundreds of miles to go on residencies, just to get some of this solitude. Some of us usually find it in a public park, or in the middle of a crowded café.

Because solitude isn’t necessarily the same as being alone.

As Anne Enright says: ‘Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you.’ And solitude is a kind of boredom. It’s a state of mind that writers can spend years learning to cultivate. It isn’t just sitting on your own at a desk, with nothing else you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a way of shutting off the critical part of your brain, to make room for the creative bit. It’s sitting with the door open and waiting for the ideas and thoughts and words to arrive. It’s an active and a passive state at the same time. Solitude, the way a writer needs solitude, is a way of being alone with the universe.

And it’s difficult to make room for creativity, when your head is full of external anxious thoughts.

Notebook and laptop on a kitchen table from above, with coffee, breakfast and a candle

Let’s talk about anxiety.

I mean anxiety with both a capital and a lower case ‘a’. Because these times are tough. All the clichés that have arisen over the past few weeks are true: this isn’t normal; these are difficult times; the world is upside down; it’s too big to process; we just have to get through this day by day.

There are times, sitting at my kitchen table with my notebook open and a pen in my hand, that I could almost imagine there’s nothing untoward happening outside my own four walls. There are days when I’m bored – in both the positive, creative, Anne Enright sense of the word, and in the listless, sour sense of it. And yes, I cultivate both of these. Because if I didn’t, I couldn’t cope.

At the time of writing this, the UK death toll has almost reached 10,000. And that’s just the figures for hospitals – it doesn’t include all those people who’ve died at home or in care homes. Hospital staff and other key workers are going without adequate PPE. There are thousands of people who won’t get proper funerals. Who are dying alone, their loved ones having to say goodbye over skype. There are nurses sitting with dying patients, holding their hands, to stop them from dying alone.

When I think about all of this, I freeze up. It’s too much for my brain to handle. Possible, reading this, you’ll see this as me turning a blind eye. As choosing to live in my own (honestly quite beautiful) bubble, of sunny Cumbrian walks, and baking banana bread, and reading books. And yes, of course I choose that. When choosing between a meadow and the abyss, who on earth would elect to fall?

That doesn’t mean I don’t care. But I know what anxiety feels like (big and small ‘a’). I recognise those heart palpitations. The sweats. The sick feeling. The vertigo from looking over the cliff-edge inside your brain. Even writing this post has got me feeling all of that, feeling dangerously close to the edge. And if I let myself get stuck in those thought-cycles, I’ll be no use to anyone.

So I steer myself away. I try to read, when I can focus on it. On better days, I try to write. I bake. I make soup. I get in shopping for my parents. And, sometimes, I try to avoid looking at the news.

Freshly baked carrot cake muffins on a cooling rack

So how is my writing going with all of this?

Of my first three weeks in isolation, I spent the first one writing absolutely nothing. I figured that was fair enough. I’d just come back from a massive round-the-world (or half-way-round-the-world-and-then-suddenly-home) trip. I was still jet-lagged, not to mention just generally tired. I needed time to adjust to what I keep seeing referred to as ‘the new normal’. And, to top it all, I had an exhausting cough that may or may not have been coronavirus. I gave myself the week off.

During week two, I also wrote very little – though I did find a way to ease myself back into creativity: Tania Hershman’s Arvon Short Story Challenge. The challenge consisted of five daily prompts, each designed to help you into writing a short story. What worked for me was that the prompts themselves only took about 20 minutes each, so I could do them without feeling like there was great pressure to spend hours in a state of focus, or to write something meaningful. It was like doing physiotherapy exercises after an injury, working a muscle back into life.

I did write a short story from the exercises. It took me two weeks, rather than one, but that doesn’t matter. The point is, the exercises opened a door.

That doesn’t mean that everything’s back to normal. There’s still that difficulty in focusing, and I’m still tired a lot of the time. (I don’t know if this is a hangover from the maybe-coronavirus cough, or just a reflection on my constant state of low-level anxiety.) But I’m managing to think about writing, and to write little bits. I’ve made a promise to myself that, during the weekdays of what would have been my Perth residency, I’m going to write something every day. It doesn’t have to be a lot. One day last week, I wrote 200 words, and I’m counting that as a success. The important thing for me right now isn’t volume – it’s keeping the engine running.

I’m currently working at between half and two thirds of my usual capacity – less for the creative stuff, but more for the practical and administrative side of things, which tends to require less head-space. Also, apart from writing this post, I took a full two-day weekend this week, and honestly it’s made a world of difference. I hardly ever do this, and this weekend has made me realise that I ought to do it more often. After all, writing is work, and it isn’t good for us to work 24/7.

So all in all, I’m doing surprisingly ok. Blips here and there of course, but getting through each day as it comes, and managing to think creatively, which is what I hold onto.

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

A few online resources:

Stay safe & well – and happy writing, or not-writing, or whatever you choose to do with these lockdown days.

Kitchen table, with notebooks, pens, coffee and a vase of flowers. In the background, theatre seats and the bottom of a set of wall-mounted bookshelves.

In our mid-twenties, panicked by the oncoming rush of time, and the arrival of the occasional grey hair in unmentionable places, myself and a couple of friends decided to make lists of things we wanted to achieve before the end of our next decade. Those much-derided ’30-before-30′ lists.

The idea, as I’m sure you’re aware, is to force yourself to make the most of those years in your late twenties. Just as everything can start to seem like it’s becoming a bit serious, and it gets easier and easier to fall into everyday patterns and get bogged down by work, it’s good to have goals to aim for. And personally, I’m a sucker for crossing things off lists. (Honestly, you should see my stuck-in-the-house-during-lockdown to do list – it’s pages and pages of all those little jobs that normally get pushed to the side.)

As with most things, I didn’t exactly stick to the rules. Instead of 30 things, I came up with 32 – though maybe this was overly ambitious, as I didn’t quite achieve all of my 32. But also, goals change. There are things I thought I wanted to do at the age of 25, which I’m no longer particularly bothered about. There are things I want now, and things I’ve already achieved, that I had no idea were even within the realms of possibility 5 years ago.

So, bearing in mind that the list system is therefore inherently flawed – how did I do?

USA Road Trip

32 Things To Do Before I’m 30:

  1. Publish a poetry pamphlet: Not only did I publish one poetry pamphlet, but I published two! Breaking the Surface, published by Flipped Eye in 2017, and then Assembly Instructions, published by Southword in 2019, as a result of winning the Munster Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition.
  2. Write and publish a novel: Originally, this was ‘write and publish a Mills & Boon’ – something myself and another writer friend had challenged one another to attempt, over several glasses of wine. At the time, I had no concept that I might actually write and publish a literary novel. And now, I have no desire to complete the (utterly dreadful) 10,000 words of smutty story I have hidden somewhere in depths of my laptop. The goal changed slightly, so I changed the listing accordingly. My Name is Monster was published by Canongate in 2019.
  3. Travel to Antarctica: I did it! By the skin of my teeth. With the speed at which everything around Coronavirus has moved, it’s hard to imagine that just three weeks ago I was standing in the middle of a snow blizzard, surrounded by penguins. I’ve wanted to visit Antarctica ever since we did a geography project about it at school, and the trip was everything I hoped it would be and more. Every single day – almost every single moment – there was something new to wonder and marvel at.
  4. Travel to at least 5 new countries: 5 countries and more! These were: Morocco, Canada, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ireland, Iceland, Hungary, Switzerland, Argentina, Uruguay & Brazil. And, whenever borders open again, I’d love to visit a few more!
  5. Visit Lizzie in Barcelona: At the time, my friend Lizzie lived in Barcelona, and in November 2015, we were able to spend a few days soaking up all the Gaudi architecture, wandering along the beach, and eating all the churros we could manage.
  6. Visit Jessi in Portland, Oregon: Even more epic than the trip to Barcelona, the trip to Oregon turned into a 5-week extravaganza, including a 3-week road trip up the west coast of the US, from just north of LA, all the way into Canada, and finishing with a relaxing couple of weeks at Jessi’s parents’ house, enjoying the sights of Oregon and the tastes of the delicious local bakery.
  7. Drive around Iceland’s Route 1: This dream came true in June 2017. For around ten days, we drove around the island of Iceland, exploring waterfalls and glaciers, basalt columns and beachs, winding fjords and geothermal pools. It’s not for nothing that people rave about Iceland.
    Iceland
  8. Island hopping in the Pacific: This is a slightly complicated one, because I’d already done it when I made the list (on a trip to Fiji in 2010, when I was living in Melbourne), but the plan was to do it again, elsewhere. So, while I’m counting it as something I have done (because technically I have), I’d still like to do it again somewhere else in the future.
  9. Take a solo trip that lasts at least a month: I’ve done a few of these over the past few years – Cambodia & Vietnam in 2017, the USA in 2019, and the trip I’m on right now (South America, Antarctica & Australia). Granted, I haven’t been on my own the whole time on any of them, but I have been away from people I knew previously. And let’s face it, solo travel is rarely completely alone the whole time, is it? Meeting new people is part of the fun!
  10. Spend at least a week at the Edinburgh Fringe: When I made this list, I anticipated spending a week at the Fringe as an audience member. I never dreamed I’d end up taking a show up there myself! But in 2017, myself and composer Stephen Hyde finished writing a 3-woman musical, The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash, and in the August, a student production company took the show to the Fringe. I have to say, standing on the Royal Mile, flyering day after day, gives a very different perspective on the festival than just attending as an audience member.
  11. Visit Ireland: This is something I’ve managed to do not once, but twice: the first time on a brief hop over to Dublin to attend an award ceremony; the second to read at Cork Poetry Festival, and to spend a few days soaking up the city. I’m also headed over to County Mayo for a couple of weeks for a residency this autumn, and I can’t wait to explore another part of the country.
  12. Road trip the coast of California: I’ve already mentioned this one in the context of visiting Portland, OR, as what started with ‘the coast of California’ ended up expanding in both directions, to include Vegas, Arizona, Oregon, Washington & part of Canada. It was an incredible trip – and one I only wish we’d had more time for. Thank goodness for shared driving!
  13. Drive a convertible (roof down): X
  14. Take a road trip in a camper van: Ok, so it wasn’t exactly a camper van, but I’m going to count it anyway, because it pretty much fulfilled the purpose of a camper van. In Iceland, to drive around Route 1, we hired a 4×4 with a pop-up top-box tent attached to the roof rack. This meant we could create a little kitchen area on the back seat (easily accessible if we wanted to reach back and grab something to snack on), and that we had our accommodation with us wherever we went. No need to pitch a tent, either, other than just flicking the little clip on the side of the top box and then unrolling our sleeping bags. All the ease of a camper van, but with all the (much needed in Iceland) agility of a 4×4!
  15. Go on a writing retreat by the sea: In January 2018, myself and 4 other poets spent a week at a hotel in St Ives, looking out over the sea and writing poems. During the day, we’d write / walk / swim in the sea (or at least some of us would – it was a bit chilly for me), and then in the evening we’d come together to workshop what we’d written. It felt so good to be able to work on a poem, then clear my head with some brisk sea air, before going back to the poetry. Just thinking about it has got me excited for my 2 weeks by the sea in Ireland this autumn.
    St Ives - writing retreat
  16. Go to a music festival: Technically, Port Eliot Festival describes itself as a ‘free-ranging festival of ideas’ – but one of these components is music, so I’m definitely counting it. (Another component is literature, which was how I ended up there, doing an event for My Name is Monster.) Besides, one of my top events of the festival was a music event – and if you ever get a chance to experience Charlotte Church’s Late-Night Pop Dungeon, do it.
  17. Order room service: Yes! This was another last-minute crossing-off of the list. While I was in Argentina, visiting Iguazu Falls, there was a tropical thunderstorm, complete with torrential rain that would’ve been impossible to go out in even for a moment, without coming back looking like I’d jumped in the hotel pool with all my clothes on. So I stayed in, ordered burger & chips and a beer, and wrote some of my postcards, listening to the drumming of the rain on the roof.
  18. Hold a conversation in Spanish: I’m not sure I could do this any more, because we all know languages disappear if you don’t use them – but I did it at the time. In late 2015, I went on a week-long intensive Spanish course, just outside Valencia, where I learned some basic Spanish. Enough to have a conversation about my favourite animal and which way to get to the supermarket, anyway!
  19. Climb a mountain: Yes! This is one I’m hugely proud of, because I’m not the fittest of people, and I find long steep climbs a bit of a struggle. But in 2018, as part of my trip to Morocco, I decided to bite the bullet and book a trek in the Atlas mountains. When I booked, it seemed to say you could choose on arrival whether you did the easy, medium or hard versions of the walk. When I got there, it turned out there was only one option. When I checked this against the original options a few days later, it turned out to be the hard version – and it included an ascent (thankfully not starting from sea-level) of the 2700m Tamalaroute. Thankfully, the view from the top was incredible.
  20. Undertake (and complete) a multi-day walk: As it happens, I ended up completing two of these – both of which felt like an enormous achievement. One was the trek mentioned above, in the Atlas mountains: 25 miles (around 68,000 steps) over 3 days – including a lot of steep ups and downs, and even a slightly dodgy river crossing. The other was somewhere considerably warmer: Sapa, in northern Vietnam, which was another 3-day trek through the rice terraces, staying in homestays along the way. Both times I doubted my own ability to complete the trek. Both times I felt a surge of joy at the achievement.
  21. Be able to run a mile without collapsing / seizing up / giving up and walking: This is another one I’m not sure I’d be able to do right at this precise moment, so maybe I’d better get back into practice, because not so long ago, I decided to start going running. And yes, I did indeed manage to run a mile without once stopping to walk. And I know a mile is nothing to people who run marathons, but to me, who hates running, it’s huge. Determined to be able to do this again by the end of the year.
  22. Do 30 sit-ups in a row: Again, this is something that I could probably just about still do now, though I’d feel it in the morning. But I went through a phase of doing sit-ups every day, and admittedly did feel better for it. Another one to get back into in my 31st year!
  23. Take a photography course: A few years ago, I took part in a photography course at my local Community Development Centre, across two Saturdays. To be honest, I still get confused by the aperture settings and shutter speed and so on. I can work it all out if I have to, but not quickly enough for it to be useful in the situation of having to take a photograph. One thing it has given me confidence with, though, is thinking about (and experimenting with) framing. And who knows? Maybe in the future I’ll try to go back to all the manual stuff, too.
  24. Bake at least one cake: This is something that has been a huge success. From basically never baking, I’ve become someone who bakes pretty often – from cupcakes, to birthday cakes for friends, to even the occasional gingerbread biscuits at Christmas. And what’s more, I love doing it. (And eating the results, too, of course.)

    Birthday cake - 32 things to do before I'm 30
    Indominus Rex birthday cake
  25. Knit or crochet something (anything will do): This one is ongoing, as I’m in the middle of crocheting a blanket. So far, I’ve crocheted all the individual squares, but I still have to sew them all together. I guess that’s probably a task for a few months’ time, curled up by the fire on a chilly autumn night.
  26. Make an item of clothing, which is acceptable to wear in public and doesn’t fall apart: X
  27. Own (and have reason to wear) a full length ball gown: X
  28. Give cards / chocolates / flowers to a stranger / strangers on Valentines Day: A few years ago, I distributed sweets & poems to strangers on Valentines Day, as part of my Poetry Plaster Pack project. This project has morphed over the past couple of years, into the Fesitval Survival Kits at Kendal Poetry Festival, where audience members receive poetry and other goodies in a little pack, as part of the festival’s ‘guerrilla poetry’ projects.
  29. Buy a piece of original artwork: I’ve done this a few times over, from buying sketches in San Fransisco, to buying a beautiful glazed bowl at an art sale in Oregon. But buying artwork is something I’d like to do more of in the future – partly because I want my walls to look good, but also because I think it’s important to invest in art and in artists. After all, if nobody invested any money in the arts, I’d quickly be out of a job.
  30. Finish reading The Well of Loneliness: X
  31. Achieve 1000 twitter followers: Well and truly achieved! The current count is over 2000. This goal was about expanding my social media reach, for professional reasons, so that I would be able to engage more easily with readers, and to network with other writers / people working in the literary industry. I know there’s this idea that twitter is basically just a lot of people shouting into the void, but personally that’s never how I’ve experienced it – maybe because of the things I tend to tweet about, and because of the twitter circles I’m part of. But for me, it’s a place of conversation about books & literature, a place of mutual support, and of sharing of opportunities. And yes, ok, also for pictures of cats & coffee – because why not? And if you don’t follow me on twitter and fancy it, then go for it!
  32. Glamping: And last, but not least: back on our epic road trip up the west coast of the USA, we stayed a couple of nights on the outskirts of Seattle. It was an Airbnb, and the property was a yurt surrounded by fairy lights in someone’s back garden, where we woke up in the mornings to the sound of whale music from the owner’s meditative therapy practice next door.

So how did I do, in numerical terms?

28 / 32

Not bad, when you consider how much goals can change over the course of 5 years. And the ones I didn’t achieve? I’d still like to drive a convertible some day, even if it’s only a short drive around the block to try one out.

I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact I’ll probably never finish reading The Well of Loneliness, but then who knows? Maybe in another 5 years, I’ll pick it up and finally get to tht end of it. The same with making an item of clothing. Possibly, after I’ve finished the crocheted blanket, I can make a start on a hat or something? As for that full-length ball gown, well, I’m much less bothered about that than I was 5 years ago. To be honest, I can’t even remember why I wanted it so badly. Strange, how in just the space of 5 years, our priorities can shift so completely.

And as for the next decade? Maybe I’d better make a start on creating a ’40 before 40′ list now instead!

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

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

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

1. Go back to basics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Make characters interact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Start a fire.

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

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

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

writing in cafes - notebooks and coffee

4. Skip back a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

You have two options.

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

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

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5. Skip forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • residencies
  • radio work
  • grant funding

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

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

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

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

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

The main changes from 2018-2019:

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

Income by Month:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Failing at Your Own Game:

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

Or maybe this:

Or even this:

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

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

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

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

I want everyone to stand up.

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

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

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

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

(Ok, sit down now)

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are other reasons too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does success look like to you, personally?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a writing residency?

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

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

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

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

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

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

What’s so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things About: Writing on the Move

What’s not so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

The other issue I want to talk about is loneliness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to survive a writing residency:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to watch out for:

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

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

Shared accommodation:

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

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

Application fees:

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

Fee-paying residencies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, so where can I go?

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

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

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

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

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

The New Yorker: Little-Known Writing Residencies

Some years just rattle over from one to the next, with very little sense of change or progression between them. Then again, some years are like fireworks, bursting into a glorious array of sound and light, leaving you dazed and slightly dizzy in their wake. 2019 has been one of those years – summarised as best as I possibly can here, in a mix of words and pictures.

Publications:

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

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

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

My Name is Monster: available from all good bookshops!

*

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

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

Read the opening poem from Assembly Instructions here.

Residencies:

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

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

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

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

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

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

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

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

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

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

And speaking of beautiful places…

Arts Council Funding:

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

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

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

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

Radio:

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

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

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

And the rest:

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

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

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

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

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

So what next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write:

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

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

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 1: Learning to Write

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

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

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 2: Learning the Industry Ropes

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

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

Build Your Brand:

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

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

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

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

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

So how does this apply to you as a writer?

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

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

Talk To Other Writers:

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

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

Other writers can be great first readers of your work. They can be people to share experiences with over wine, and people to help you with your professional problems. I have writer friends who I send my first drafts to, who’ll tell me honestly what is and isn’t working. I have writers I share reading lists with, who give me book recommendations that are always reliably excellent. I have writers who I message when I’ve got a deadline looming that I don’t know how to meet, or when I’m struggling with a plot point, or when I can’t work out what to put as expenses on my tax return. I have writers who’ll celebrate good news with me, and who’ll comiserate with me when something doesn’t go so well. I have writers who’ll spend the day at my kitchen table with me, both of us just working on our own writing, because it makes a nice change from being on our own.

In short: other writers are my colleagues, and I couldn’t do without them.

So how do you meet other writers?

  • Writing groups: Joining a writing group is a great way to meet other writers – particularly if it’s the right sort of group for you. Try to find a group of people at a similar experience- or commitment-level to yourself, who have a similar creative ethos. If a writing group really isn’t working out for you – if you find it’s having a negative effect on your writing – then feel free to leave it. A good writing group should challenge you, but it shouldn’t leave you weeping in the gutter because nobody understands your work. (The flip side of this is: if you try numerous writing groups, and not a single person at any of them understands your work, then maybe this is the time to think about what the common denominator might be…)
  • Writing courses: There are hundreds of different options for writing courses, from university-level courses, to week-long residential courses such as Arvon and Ty Newydd, to online courses such as those run by The Poetry School, to locally run evening classes, to one-off workshops and masterclasses at festivals, or run by arts organisations or local libraries. These can be a great way of meeting fellow writers (feel free to try the post-workshop announcement of ‘I’m going to the pub afterwards if anyone fancies joining me?’) – not to mention improving your writing at the same time. And the best bit? If you’re registered self-employed as a writer, then this is technically professional development, so you can claim it as expenses on your tax return. (At least, you can claim the course fee. Not so sure about those post-workshop drinks at the pub.)
  • Book events: Attending book events can be an inspiring way of hearing from professional writers, and getting to know a bit about whoever’s giving the event and their work. But the chances are, you’re not the only writer in the audience, either. If you feel up to it, get chatting to some of the other audience members. Talk about what you think of the speaker, or what you thought of the event. Whether or not that person turns out to be a writer, they’re probably at least interested in the same sorts of books as you. And if you attend a literary festival, then there are even more opportunities for these kinds of conversations. (Pub!)
  • Networking events: If you don’t like the idea of just going up to someone and starting a conversation out of nowhere (I’m terrible at it, unless it involves some sort of ultra-British complaint about the weather), then maybe you could try a networking event, where the conversation isn’t out of nowhere, because it’s expected. Sometimes, writing organisations (such as the Society of Authors and Mslexia) will run events that specifically allow writers to network with one another. Often, these events will also feature talks by professional writers, which will of course be incredibly useful as well – but don’t skimp on the networking bit. And the good bit about networking as a writer? You basically just get to have lovely conversations about books, usually with other introverts.
  • Social media.

Yes, OK – Use Social Media:

I suppose I can’t go through a whole post about creating a profile as a writer, and not talk about social media. The problem, I think, is that too many people see social media as the be-all-and-end-all of creating a profile as a writer, and as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t. It’s just a way of implementing all the things we’ve already talked about.

For instance: building your brand as a writer? You can do that through social media – through the profile picture you set, through what you choose to talk about, who you follow, what topics you engage with, what you retweet, the language you use, how you conduct yourself.

Networking with other writers? Social media can be great for that – particularly if you’re not in the position of being able to regularly access physical get-togethers with other writers.

Engaging with your obsessions? Following non-writers who are interested in the things that obsess you? Twitter!

Talking about books? Hearing about books? Finding out about opportunities that might be available for you as a writer? Social media is good for that, too!

The important thing to remember about social media is that it isn’t necessary. If it works for you, then great. If it doesn’t, then that’s fine too; you just need to find your alternative.

You also don’t need to be on all social media platforms. You don’t need a professional Snapchat, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Soundcloud, YouTube, Vimeo, Bebo (does that even still exist?), whatever. You don’t need to blog and vlog and post your word count every hour to Instastories. Do what works for you.

Oh, and one last thing…

Debunking The Myth:

I once read a blog post about building up your profile as a writer, which was essentially a long list of things you needed to do before you wrote your novel, or whatever. These included things like: creating a successful book review blog; gaining a lot of followers on twitter; getting articles into lots of journals; post short stories to your blog, preferably so that one of them goes viral; get a lot of followers on GoodReads; build up a social media profile so that you have an audience waiting for you when the time comes; get your professional headshot taken; practise your autograph; invent delicious calorie-free chocolate.

Ok, I made the last one up. But you do see posts like this doing the rounds. And while all of these things are fine to do once you’ve written the book (and if you do succeed with that last one, be sure to drop me a line), they’re all secondary to the actual writing. The most important thing is to just write the book.

I’ll say that one more time, for effect: JUST. WRITE. THE. BOOK.

But when the writing is done, or well underway? Well, then it doesn’t hurt to spread your wings a little.

*

Good luck! And happy writing.

 

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.

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:

If May felt like the eye of the storm, then June has been full-on hurricane. But, unlike most busy months, it’s mostly been busy with just one thing: the novel.

On Thursday 6th June, my debut novel, My Name is Monster, was officially released. If you weren’t aware of that, then either you’re new to this blog (in which case: welcome!) or you simply haven’t been paying attention. I’ve been talking about it a lot.

Understandably, the rest of the month has been pretty solidly dominated by that. I’ve just finished a run of talks and readings in libraries and bookshops – mostly around Cumbria, but also straying as far as Lancaster, and even to ‘that London’.

(Side note: when publishers put you up in a hotel that’s right next to a heap of excellent independent bookshops, it can be a dangerous thing…)

But the month hasn’t all been novel-related.

Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets

This month I also made my Radio 4 debut, with an episode of Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets. The programme aired on 2nd June, during the Sunday afternoon poetry slot. And, for some reason I’m still not entirely sure about – maybe becaue my parents couldn’t get the house radio working properly? – we ended up parked in my driveway and listening to it in the car.

Poet and novelist Katie Hale explores the legacy of early dialect poets in her native county of Cumbria, to discover if dialect poetry is a way of expressing local identity.

Cumbria has a long history of dialect poetry, beginning with poets like Josiah Relph, Susanna Blamire and Robert Anderson, and continuing right up to the present day. Katie finds out more about some of these historic poets and their contemporary counterparts. She also speaks to Cedric Robinson – the Queen’s Guide to the Sands of Morecambe Bay – and to farmer and writer James Rebanks, trying to understand the connection between dialect, identity and the land itself. How does the place we live in shape who we are and how we choose to express ourselves?

From a ‘writing life’ point of view, this programme is a perfect example of how one project can lead to another. In 2017, I was commissioned to write a poem for National Poetry Day, in conjunction with BBC local radio. The poem had to be about a Cumbrian dialect word: ‘twining’ (moaning / complaining). As a result, the word ‘twining’ then made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, and BBC Radio Cumbria made a video of the poem.

Because the poem was part of a national project (with 12 poets around the country writing dialect-inspired poems), it was well shared and had pretty good SEO. Which meant that when the production company, Made in Manchester, were googling ‘Cumbria dialect poetry’, my name came up.

At the other end, following the programme’s broadcast on Radio 4, the Lakeleand Dialect Society (who I interviewed as part of the programme) was celebrating its 80th birthday. And so, Radio Cumbria had a few of us on to talk about the importance of dialect – and to give the Radio 4 programme a bit of an extra push. One thing leading to another, leading to another. It often surprises me how much of my career ends up working like that. (Maybe I’ll dedicate a full post to it at some point in the future.)

You can listen to the Cumbria episode of Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets here, till Monday 8th July.

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Under Northern Skies

Back in summer 2018, I worked with a group of former miners from Whitehaven on an oral history project, as 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.

Earlier this year, I was commissioned to write two more poems, inspired by the work the National Trust had done with other groups: pupils from Keswick School, and members of Glenmore art group and Glenmore creative writing group. These poems were a mix of original work, and words collaged from the work and conversation of participants.

The result: three poems, each then filmed by John Hamlett, which were played as part of an exhibition alongside artwork from the groups, at Carlisle Old Fire Station.

The month in books:

This month has been a bit slower than last month in the reading department. Blame it on all that dashing about between book events! It’s also been largely fiction-based, rather than my usual attempt at balancing fiction with poetry (and a smattering of non-fiction thrown in). Still, that’s ok. I’m on a bit of a fiction bender at the moment, and I’m sure in a month or so that will flip and I’ll be devouring nothing but poetry.

  • The Last, by Hanna Jameson
  • A Roll of the Dice, by Mona Dash
  • Crudo, by Olivia Laing
  • Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss
  • Being Haunted, by Jennifer Copley
  • Fen, by Daisy Johnson

The month in pictures:

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:

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!

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:

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.

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

‘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:

As you can tell from the title of this blog post, I’ve let these monthly updates slide a little. There has been a reason for this – kind of. For a couple of months, I felt as though there wasn’t really much to update on. I felt sort of stuck, and at the same time in a hurricane of self doubt. I was considering a big change-up, wondering whether the whole writing thing was ever going to work out. There were electricity bills nudging at my bank account, and worries battering my brain.

And then in the middle of it all: July.

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It’s amazing how one small moment can turn everything around. For me, it was sitting in the cafe at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, waiting to go and meet a friend. I was planning to spend an hour or so writing, but before I did, I thought I’d have a quick check of my emails. There, sitting all innocent in my inbox, was a notification: a call to action, to check my Arts Council online portal.

A couple of months before, I’d applied for an Arts Council grant from their new funding stream: Developing Your Creative Practice. These grants are for individual artists, and, as the name suggests, they’re to help you develop your artistic practice. I checked my account on the portal. I’d got a grant.

Just like that, I didn’t need to worry. For around 6 months of 2019, there will be money coming into my account to support me while I write. I’ll be spending 5 months at home, working on my first full collection of poetry, as well as spending almost 3 weeks in America, researching my family and social history of the US: 2 weeks at New York Public Library, and 4 days in Virginia.

Just like that, my work felt validated. I felt legitimised as a writer. The doubts are still there, of course, but they’re smaller now, easier to screw up into a ball and toss out of sight for a while.

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The bizarre thing is, now that I look back on the last 3 months from this vantage point, I can see that they were all actually quite successful in their own right. Sometimes I guess we just need that external validation to remind us that we’re on the right course.

For instance, in May, I ran a series of workshops in Shap Primary School (my old stomping ground), which led to all of the Yr3/4 class gaining their Arts Award Discover, and 12 Yr5 children being put forward for Arts Award Explore. I also ran a selection of workshops for the Wordsworth Trust, with a few more due to happen in the autumn term.

In June, I went on an Arvon course, taught by George Szirtes and Pascale Petit, where I wrote so intensively for a week and made huge leaps forward with my collection-in-progress. It was so inspiring to spend a week in such beautiful surroundings, focussing so completly on poetry and on the development of my work and practice – especially under the guidance of two such excellent tutors.

June also saw what we might call Shriver-gate, with Lionel Shriver letting her terror of diversity show and causing a twitter storm in response – as well as a united response from the Penguin WriteNow writers. Much as I’m reluctant to give Shriver any more air-time, I am incredibly proud of my WriteNow family, of the way we banded together to fight intolerance, and of the open letter we wrote in response.

You can read an article about our response here, and our full letter to Shriver here.

July has seen me run a creative workshop at the Barbican Centre, as part of their Summer Camp for young people. Around 7 years ago, I joined Barbican Young Poets during my final year of university. Now, it feels as though I’ve come full circle, working with Kareem Parkins-Brown (another former Barbican Young Poet) to run a poetry workshop for young people, back at the Barbican.

The past three months have also seen the first 4 plays of this year’s summer season at Theatre by the Lake – which, as usual, I’ve been reviewing for Radio Cumbria – as well as attending some great poetry readings, including the Pavillion Poets reading in Grasmere, and the launch of Hannah Hodgson’s debut pamphlet, Dear Body.

I’m also starting to get more commissions – which is incredibly exciting. From my first commission in 2017, for National Poetry Day / BBC Local Radio, through the Subject to Change commission from Barbican Centre Creative Learning in January, I now have 3 poetry commissions on the go. Which is, I suppose, another point about counting rejections & acceptances: you only end up counting the things you actually apply for, the cold-call applications, if you like. Whereas so much of the important career-building stuff comes into your inbox through other routes and contacts. Call it the statistic-less successes. But more on these commissions as and when the finished work makes its way out into the big wide world.

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May / June / July Submission Statistics:

Back at the end of April, I wrote about how I was getting a little overwhelmed by the number of rejections coming in. I think rejections have always been at this kind of level, but it’s just that when you’re actively counting them, you really notice how quickly they’re mounting up.

Still, that’s the point of all this counting: transparency. To show that, even when I’ve had a particularly good month, the rejections still come piling in. To show it isn’t all sunshine and launch parties.

  • Submissions made: 20
  • Rejections: 18
  • Acceptances: 2
  • Partial successes: 1

One of the acceptances, in this instance, is of course my successful Arts Council grant. The other was having a poem accepted into an anthology of Cumbrian poetry, which is coming out from Handstand Press later in the year, and which has a really exciting selection of poets listed in its contents page.

The partial success is a ‘no, but we’re interested in working with you on a different project’: an application that opens conversations, rather than providing a specific opportunity.

I guess this is the point I’m making: that even when the rejections come pouring in (I’ve had 37 rejections so far in 2018, in case you’re wondering), all it takes is one or two successes to set things back on track. So keep submitting. Keep putting yourself out there, however raw and terrifying it feels.

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The months in books:

August will see the publication of the first book developed through Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme: The Reinvention of Martha Ross, by Charlene Allcott. I was lucky enough to read this pre-publication, and I can honestly say, it’s a heart-warming, funny, unflinching look at the ways we break down and build ourselves back up. And now I can’t wait to read all the rest of the WriteNow books!

  • How to be Both, by Ali Smith
  • Madame Zero, by Sarah Hall
  • Dark Days, by James Baldwin
  • The first person, by Ali Smith
  • Dear Body, by Hannah Hodgson
  • Thicker Than Water, by Cal Flyn
  • The Build Environment, by Emily Hasler
  • Tell Me How It Ends, by Valeria Luiselli
  • Stay With Me, by Ayobami Adebayo
  • Mama Amazonica, by Pascale Petit
  • Cumbrian Folk Tales, by Taffy Thomas
  • Never Say Die, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Child I, by Steve Tasane
  • Autumn, by Ali Smith
  • The Reinvention of Martha Ross, by Charlene Allcott

The months in pictures:

 

April is the cruellest month…

Thanks T S Eliot, but this year April hasn’t been cruel so much as confusing – and I mean that mostly in terms of time. Forget the mini heatwave that had everyone thinking it was August for a weekend, or the snow flurries that came less than a fortnight before that. No, what I really mean is that April seems like it’s been the longest month of the calendar, and yet it also feels like March was only yesterday.

I think it has something to do with being in limbo. There’s been a lot of waiting this month, of suspending myself between projects, having to flit from one thing to another as time and deadlines dictate. When you do a creative writing course – particularly a long-term one like a Masters – people often talk to you about sustaining creative your practice after the course is over. In other words, making sure you don’t stop writing just because you’ve jumped back into the stream of real life. But what they mean is carving out time to write. People rarely talk about juggling multiple creative projects, and the brain space that takes up – how so often doing lots of things can end up feeling a bit like you’re doing nothing at all.

Not true, of course. Remember what I said about this April feeling like the longest ever month? Part of that has come from cramming things into it – from drafting a number of poems, to getting Draft 8 of the novel underway. Not to mention getting involved with the LabelLit project for Poetry Day Ireland, fitting in a bunch of applications (see below), and trying to get the garden sorted – on top of brief trips to my Somerset, Wiltshire and London, the latter to head to the Penguin Random House offices on the Strand to catch up with the wonderful WriteNow crew, on the hottest day of the year. Phew!

I’d love to say that May was going to be calmer, but in reality April was supposed to be the calm before the storm, and look how that turned out! So I think I’m going to have to wait at least a couple of months for things to slow down. Which is great in a way – I love all the work that I’m doing, and May/June/July is always busy season for schools’ workshops, which are hugely enjoyable and inspiring in their own right. I also love the productive energy that can build up at times like this – as long as I remember to take a break at some point to avoid burnout. I guess that’s what it’s all about, really, isn’t it? Finding that balance. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure how to do that yet. At least, it isn’t an exact science. More like a feeling that I sometimes get wrong. But if I do figure it out, I’ll let you know

In the meantime: May is another month…

April submission statistics:

When I set out to do this whole ‘100 submissions in a year’ thing, I wanted to make a point about how much rejection you have to deal with as a writer. I was making a point about how hard it is, and about the sheer number of nets you have to cast into the water in the hope of landing just a couple of fish. So it shouldn’t really surprise me that so many of my nets are coming back empty. After all, wasn’t that the point I was trying to make all along?

I actually think I’m pretty good with rejections. I have a system (it involves spreadsheets) that means every time I get a rejection (or an acceptance) I get to tick it off the list, one way or another – and I do love ticking things off lists. But here’s a head’s up, in case you were wondering: relentless rejection can be really blooming tough. It happens – most writers will tell you that acceptances / rejections come in cycles or phases (often successes seem to come in groups of 3). But this cycle of rejections is testing the resolve.

Still, that’s also the point I’m making, right? It’s tough. The only solution is to power on through. So, powering on through this month, here are my April statistics. Here’s hoping May’s are a little more optimistic!

  • Submissions made: 7
  • Rejections: 4

The month in books:

This month, I’ve come to realise something about time. More specifically, about how I allocate my time. Sometimes, if I feel I’m not writing as much or as well as I’d like to, I think it must be because I’m not allocating enough time to the actual writing process. But then, 15 minutes of free writing can be hugely valuable and productive, especially for poetry – so maybe that’s not the issue after all. I think where I struggle is finding the time to read and to reflect. This is a much slower process than the actual writing. It’s about taking time out from the busy task-driven life and thinking.

I don’t take nearly enough time to sit and read. There’s always something else that takes priority (usually with good reason, like paid work), but it’s the thing I need think I most need to carve out time for in my life.

With that in mind, here’s my meagre book list for the past month (meagre in quantity, but mighty in quality):

  • Physical, by Andrew McMillan
  • Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer
  • Attrib., by Eley Williams
  • Selected Poems, by Thom Gunn & Ted Hughes
  • When Light is Like Water, by Molly McCloskey

The month in pictures:

Spring is here! Well, almost. Sort of. Not really. It came for a little while, and then it went again.

But that’s kind of how I feel about my life as a writer, too. Things come and go: inspiration, motivation, high points, low points, belief in your own creative ability. It’s natural to have a less-than-constant relationship with the work in this way. After all, I think very few people go into work every day with an unstoppable spring in their step – and when you’re a writer you’re digging so deep into your own psyche that it’s natural for the rest of your life to come to bear on your writing, and vice versa.

Certainly that’s the way it’s felt for me this month. There’s been a lot of waiting around for things (responses from submissions etc), and I’ve discovered that I’m not amazing at waiting. I’ve also been focussing a lot on admin, which is great in that it’s necessary, and I love the feeling of ticking it all off the list, but when coupled with a lack of actual writing can feel like a bit of a creative drain. Still, I think it’s no terrible thing to take a brief break from the writing desk, especially after reaching a crucial stage in a big project, and letting the batteries recharge.

Editing the novel

And on the flip side, in the outrageously positive column for this month:

StAnza in particular is something that deserves an extra mention here. I first volunteered as a Participant Liaison Volunteer in 2013, and (with a couple of exceptions due to work commitments) I’ve been going back ever since. The festival has become a sort of poetry family, so it was extra special to be invited to read there this year. Even more special was being invited to read at the Festival Launch Extravaganza on the opening night (alongside such fantastic poets as Michael Symmons Roberts, Rita Ann Higgins & Sinead Morrissey), and to help close the festival as part of the panel that made up the Festival Plenary. It means so much to feel supported and encouraged by an organisation that you’ve respected for so long, and that you came to know during such a seminal part of your development as a writer.

I was also asked to write some of the StAnza in-house blog posts during the festival – I guess I didn’t do too badly at this last year if they saw fit to ask me again. This year I shared the post with Carly Brown, who is another long-standing StAnza volunteer who has performed at the festival.

StAnza blog post #1:
Wine, Words, and a Wonderful Beginning

StAnza blog post #2:
A Coming Together of Voices

The other great thing about festivals is always the way they challenge my creative thinking. At StAnza, I was lucky enough to be asked to read the translations for Maud Vanhauwaert during her performance. I learned quite quickly that this was not going to be a straightforward exercise in alternating between Dutch poems in her voice and English translations in mine. Instead, we spent the hour before the performance coming up with interesting ways of performing alongside one another, of integrating performances so that original and translated text spoke to one another, and occasionally spoke with one another, to create a performance that embraced the many levels of translation rather than simply bowing to its complications. It was also a lot of fun, and reminded me how much I enjoy performing – particularly performing alongside other people. While I may not be creating a multi-player poetry show in the near future, it did make me think in greater depth about my own creative practice, and other ways I could work as a poet, and as a writer more generally.

Watch this space, I guess!

StAnza Poetry Festival - places in St Andrews

 

March submission statistics:

In terms of submissions, March has been a bit of a continuation of February. Lots of rejections this month – which I suppose reminds me of why I’m doing this ‘100 submissions’ challenge in the first place: to prove how difficult it is to get along as a writer, and how much stamina you need in order to see those successes trickling in.

With 90% of my feedback being negative this month, it made that one small success event sweeter – especially when it came from such an unexpected source, with a piece of flash fiction being accepted for publication. Flash fiction isn’t exactly my usual genre, either, but it’s always good to broaden your horizons, especially in this case!

So here are my March stats:

  • Submissions made: 6
  • Rejections: 9
  • Successes: 1

Fingers crossed for April…

Snow in Cumbria - lonning

The month in books:

March has been a strange month for books. For a lot of March, I felt as though I couldn’t really focus on anything. Not because the books weren’t good (they were), but because I think my brain was saturated with words, from filling my every waking moment with poetry at StAnza Poetry Festival, to what felt like the herculean effort of finishing Draft 7 of the novel. So I purged. Effectively I pressed reboot on my brain’s creative systems. I went back to something I loved when I was younger, which didn’t requre my analytical brain to engage with my creative impulses and spark anything new. It was just a case of enjoyment, and letting my mind refresh, before I felt I could move back to things that challenged me / my thinking a little more:

  • Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Point Blanc, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Skeleton Key, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Eagle Strike, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Scorpia, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Ark Angel, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Snakehead, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Crocodile Tears, by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx, by Tara Bergin
  • On Poetry, by Glyn Maxwell

The month in pictures:

February has been a month of opposites for me: up & down, success & failure, sun & snow. Mostly, though, I’ve been doing two things: walking along the beach and editing the novel.

I was lucky enough to get away from the chilly UK temperatures for a week, and spend some time soaking up the sun (and sangria) in Portugal with my parents. We stayed just outside a little town called Almancil, and did nothing more stressful than walk the 3-ish miles along the sand to the little collection of beach restaurants. Before I went, I was thinking of the trip as something of an indulgence. After all, I had a great long to do list to get through, and probably not enough time to get through it.

But something I’m coming to understand more and more is how important it is to take time to relax. To read a book (or three). To spend time with people you care about. To get outside and walk.

By the time I got on the flight home, I was completely ready to get back to working – which was good, because I was delivering a full day of workshops at Queen Katherine School in Kendal the very next day.

So moving into March, relaxing is something I’m going to make sure I incorporate more into my life – as a deliberate act, rather than just crashing out in front of Netflix because I’m too tired to drag myself upstairs to bed. March is shaping up to be a slightly busier month than February, too, so I think I’m going to need that discipline. Luckily, I’ve learned to crochet this month, so that should provide a good amount of down time to let my brain switch off & clear out…

February also marked an important anniversary (to me, at least): a year since I discovered I’d been accepted onto the WriteNow mentoring scheme by Penguin Random House. Looking back, it’s incredible to think that, within the space of that year, I’ve gone from thinking of myself as a poet who probably shouldn’t be dabbling in fiction because it’s not her ‘thing’, to thinking of myself as a poet & novelist, perfectly justified in giving equal attention to both forms. I’ve also gone from having a few thousand hastily-written words to being just a couple of days away form finishing Draft 7 of the manuscript. I’ve gotten to work with a wonderful & insightful editor, and also now have an agent – as well as gaining a whole group of friends in the other mentees, who have now become a kind of writing family.

WriteNow has given me so much confidence in my prose writing, and in my writing in general. I guess it just goes to show how much can happen in a year.

So I’m celebrating this anniversary by, well, continuing to work on the novel. (Also by consuming large quantities of hot chocolate & marshmallows, but that’s partly down to the snow.) Here’s to the next year!

 

 

the writing desk - February 2018

February submission statistics:

This year, I’m aiming to submit to / apply for 100 things. Part of the point of this is to get a big enough sample size, so that at the end of the year I can show that writing isn’t all sunshine & roses; there are days when all you get are rebuttals, and those acceptances can feel few and far between. In a way, this goal makes it easier when I get rejections, as each ‘no’ is just another step closer to proving my point about how hard it can be to get on as a writer.

But this month, I’ve been finding it hard. I’ve always thought I was quite good at dealing with rejection (at least, with literary rejection), in a kind of shrug-my-shoulders-and-move-onto-the-next-thing kind of way. But after getting multiple rejections all within a few days of each other, it’s kind of starting to rub. Especially as a couple of those were for things I really wanted.

Having said that, I still have a lot of applications / submissions out there waiting for a response, and I did have one success this month (although it’s only loosely connected to the ‘writing’ part of my life, in that it’s arts-based: as of March, I’ll be working one day a week doing admin for the Brewery Arts Centre’s Youth Arts department).

So, with all that in mind, here are my February stats:

  • Submissions made: 5
  • Rejections: 5
  • Successes: 1

Time to start working on the March submissions…

Portugal

The month in books:

A nice mix of prose & poetry this month, including one book that I think might make it onto my list of favourites: the incredible Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel.

  • The Lauras, by Sara Taylor
  • Inside the Wave, by Helen Dunmore
  • Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel
  • A Whole Life, by Robert Seethaler
  • The Abandoned Settlements, by James Sheard

The month in pictures:

This January has been all about getting the ball rolling (in some cases literally, as this month I also went bowling for the first time in nearly a decade – but that’s a separate story).

I always feel like January’s an odd one. In some ways, it’s all about positivity: looking forward to what the new year might bring, blasting through that to do list with all the optimism of being at the start of something. Then again, it’s also a weirdly long month, filled with post-Christmas blues and bitter weather. That’s pretty much how the month has been for me: filled with lots of exciting writing-related things, but also lots of sitting in my lonely kitchen, forcing myself to confront my manuscript.

Good Things:

St Ives: Having wanted to go on a writing retreat for ages and never quite got round to it, I was thrilled to be invited on one with a lovely group of poets, at the Treloyan Manor Hotel in St Ives. Five of us (me, Emily Hasler, Holly Hopkins, Kim Moore & Hilda Sheehan) spent five nights there, and five days strolling by the sea, eating the most enormous amounts of food, and occasionally writing a poem or two. It was exactly what I needed after the post-Christmas rush, and the early-January onslaught of admin. A chance to refresh and let the sea breeze blow away the cobwebs. I came away from the retreat thinking that, even though I hadn’t written much, it was probably good for my creativity all the same. Then I got home and looked in my notebook, and realised that I’d actually written loads! Strange how creativity can creep up on you like that.

Barbican Subject to Change: As part of the Barbican Centre’s ‘The Art of Change’ programme for 2018, twelve poets have been selected to write poems for the Creative Learning department, each inspired by something that happened in a given month. I was given January, and so decided to write about the ‘honey’ incident that took place on Virgin Trains at the start of the month – when a Virgin Trains East Coast customer, Emily Cole, complained on Twitter about a male staff member’s passive aggressive use of the word ‘honey’. Rather than acknowledging the situation, the company’s initial response was to ask if she would ‘prefer ‘pet’ or ‘love’ next time’. This led me on to thinking about gendered language and micro-aggressions, and the way that even inoffensive language can be used as a way of exerting power. You can read the full poem (and more about gendered language, and poetry as a vehicle for change) here. Or watch the film of the poem:

Schools workshops: With the new year has come a new set of schools workshops – and of course continuing with some existing favourite groups. (New career milestone: going for a meeting in the school library where, nearly half my lifetime ago, I had my first kiss.)

T S Eliot Prize readings: Oh, and I also had a great night at the T S Eliot Prize reading at the Southbank Centre. So much fun seeing so many poets in one room – even if it is a very very big room.

St Ives writing retreat

January Submissions Statistics:

This year, I’m aiming to submit to / apply for 100 things. This isn’t just some masochistic attempt to deny myself a social life while I type CVs and artist statements deep into the night. It’s about providing clarity, so that at the end of the year, I can give an accurate percentage of how many of these submissions resulted in rejections, acceptances, or even partial acceptances. It’s about honesty: showing that the writing life isn’t all sunshine and roses, competition wins and launch parties.

Of course, it’s also about making the effort to put my work out there.

So with that in mind, here are my stats for January. (NB: I know they’re kind of high on the submissions, but low on the replies. Which makes sense if you think about it. January is always the month when people tend to be most eager about keeping new years resolutions, right? And a lot of these things have really long turnarounds.)

  • Submissions made: 23
  • Rejections: 1
  • Partial successes: 1 *

* This month, I successfully applied for a grant from the Cumbria Community Foundation Cultural Fund, which will part-fund my place on an Arvon course later in the year. I’m really excited about this, as I’ve wanted to go on an Arvon course for years, and never been able to afford it. (I’m counting it as a ‘partial’ success because I didn’t quite get the full amount I applied for, but make no mistake – I’m still counting partial successes as a success in their own right!)

The month in books:

It’s been a very poetry-heavy January this year – though I also read Erling Kagge’s Silence in the Age of Noise, which reads less like informative non-fiction and more like meditation. Which, at the time, was exactly what I needed. Aside from that one exception, though, this month’s reading has been decidedly poetic: a mixture of re-reading collections I’d already read, thoroughly reading collections I’d so far only been dipping into at odd intervals, and exploring new collections – mostly from the T S Eliot Prize shortlist.

  • Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe
  • Falling Awake, by Alice Oswald
  • A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying, by Laurie Ann Guerrero
  • Little Gods, by Jacob Polley
  • Night Sky with Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong
  • Silence in the Age of Noise, by Erling Kagge
  • All My Mad Mothers, by Jacqueline Saphra
  • The Radio, by Leontia Flynn

The month in pictures: