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:

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

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

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

1999

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                        But Miss, they say,
that could be anything.

And I say, Yes. Exactly.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few good things:

Frankenstein:

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

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

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

Manchester Poetry Prize shortlisting:

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

Plough Short Poem Prize:

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

The residency month in books:

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

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

The residency month in pictures:

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

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

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

Ready? Got your notebook handy?

Then I’ll begin.

Poetry Cairn, Lakes Alive Festival

1 – Freewrite

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

So what is freewriting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I bought some fancy coloured gel pens for editing

2 – Phrases Breed Phrases

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

For example:

Even though the dark was coming in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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writing prompt - Katie Hale

3 – Repeat Yourself. Repeat Yourself.

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

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

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

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

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writing prompt - Katie Hale

4 – A Brave New Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some consonantal sounds that go together:

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

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

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Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5 – Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.