If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to write. Obvious, right? Right. I mean, if you wanted to be a concert pianist you’d expect to have to learn to play the piano first.

But there’s this weird thing that happens with writing, where some people think that, because they can write words down (a shopping list? An email? A letter to a friend?) they can write a story or a poem or a play, or whatever it may be. After all, they use words every day – surely it’s just a matter of choosing the right ones?

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably already well aware that it doesn’t work like this. You have to understand the craft of your writing – to learn about narrative arc, voice, dialogue, sentence structure, point of view, figurative language, rhythm and meter, pacing, imagery…

Sure, you can write without understanding any of this, and if you’re writing solely for the pleasure of it and it isn’t about writing well, then fine. Just because we enjoy something doesn’t mean we have to monetise it – whatever capitalism has to say about it. After all, I’m a far cry from selling out a solo gig at the Royal Albert Hall, but I take huge enjoyment from singing in the shower now and again.

But if you want your writing to be good, as judged by industry expectations, then you’re going to have to learn it, just like any other craft.

So how do you learn to write?

Books at Allan Bank, Grasmere (National Trust)
Allan Bank, Grasmere (National Trust)

Read.

Before you even pick up a pen, you need to read as widely and as deeply as you can. You don’t have to be a particularly fast reader, but you have to read well. By that, I mean you have to read with a critical eye. You’re not just reading for the story any more, to find out what happens. Instead, approach each book as a training exercise.

  • How is this author creating suspense?
  • How do they make you like their protagonist?
  • If the book feels a bit slow or you lose interest at some point, why is that?
  • How could you avoid making the same mistakes?

If you don’t like to read (and, believe it or not, I have actually met people who write, who say that they hate books), then you need to question whether you really do want to be a writer. If it’s just because you like the sound of your own voice, then record yourself reading the phone book or something instead. Writers need to read, the same way that painters need to look at other paintings.

I’ve also met people who say they don’t read because it’ll influence what they write.

Good.

Let yourself be influenced by others. That doesn’t mean you have to copy their ideas or steal their characters (in fact, there are laws against that sort of thing). But if a writer has a particularly engaging way of writing dialogue, so that you can actually hear the characters coming off the page, then absolutely study their technique and let it influence yours. If you’re an aviation engineer, you need to study the concept of how an aeroplane wing works or the plane will fall out of the sky. If you’re a writer, you need to study how to string a sentence together, or construct a plot, or develop a character, or your book will never get off the ground.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

Read widely.

Reading in your own genre is great. If you write crime fiction then sure, read crime fiction. Figure out what other crime writers are doing, what they have done in the past. Where do you fit within the genre? How can you do something different?

But read other stuff as well. Let yourself be influenced by writers of all kinds. Read thrillers and romance. Read literary fiction. Read poetry and play scripts. Read classics. Read YA. Read non-fiction. Heck, read a picture book. As long as you read critically, you’re growing your craft. And the variety of your influences may just give you your distinctive voice.

As well as reading other types of fiction, and poetry, and scripts, and creative non-fiction, try reading books about writing. Study what other writers do, and study what other writers are telling you to do.

There are literally hundreds of ‘how to’ books out there. (Ok, probably there are thousands, but obviously I haven’t counted. I’m too busy reading and writing.) So how do you choose which ones are worth your time?

Honestly, it’s probably going to be trial and error. Recommendations are great, but what works for your friend might leave you high and dry, whereas something another writer has found completely useless might be like gold dust for you. We’re all different writers and, crucially, we’re all at different stages of development in our writing. So we’re all going to be looking for something different. If you want to try a few without a big price tag, see what you can get from your local library. You can then dip into a number of options, and if you find one you like, potentially buy a copy afterwards.

In the meantime, here are a few books on writing that I would recommend:

  • Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way
  • Louise Doughty’s A Novel in a Year
  • Renni Browne & Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
  • Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling
  • Peter Sansom’s Writing Poems
  • Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry

new year writing resolutions: Katie Hale

Write.

Reading is all very well, but of course you also need to write. Just as a concert pianist learns to play sonatas by practising scales, so you can learn to write by writing. You can write exercises, or you can write that epic novel that you’ve had in the back of your brain for ages. It doesn’t really matter, so long as you’re writing, and you’re working out at all times how you can improve.

Try different voices. Try different forms. Try using techniques you’ve observed in your reading – how do they work for you?

Practice makes perfect – and although I’m not entirely sure I believe in ‘the perfect novel’, at least practising can help to get you closer.

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

Join a writing group.

Once you’re on the way with your writing, you’re going to realise what a solitary process it can be, if you haven’t already. I guess it’s a bit like parenting – sometimes you just need to talk to other people who are going through the same thing.

Writing groups can take any form. They can be workshopping groups, where you get together to comment on each others’ works in progress. They can be support groups, where you share opportunities and talk about the problems you may be facing. They can be physical groups (at someone’s house, in the pub, in a specially booked room somewhere), or they can be online groups. They can be mixed ability, or grouped so that everyone has similar levels of experience.

I’m in a number of writing groups, each with its own focus:

  • A poetry group that meets once a month, where we each bring in a poem to workshop as a group.
  • A group that focuses more on fiction (and scripts), which also meets once a month, and for a full day. In the mornings, we do a number of writing exercises, usually with a specific theme or focus, and in the afternoons we workshop bits of our works in progress, which we circulate about a month in advance.
  • A WhatsApp group of other debut writers, which we use as a support group for sharing experiences / successes / difficulties etc, rather than for sharing actual work.
  • I also have a number of friends who are writers, who I often share things with individually.

I’ve also been in a number of other groups over the years, as I’ve moved around geographically, and as my focuses have changed. For me, the groups that seem to work best are the ones where everyone is at a similar level – if not of experience or knowledge, then at least of commitment. As with many things, it helps if everyone is coming from a place of similar understanding.

If you’re looking for a writing group in your local area, and you’re not sure where to start, try by googling, or by asking at your local library, arts organisation or community centre. Talk to other writers in your area – particularly ones who write something similar to what you write. If you’re not sure who these might be, try asking at any local bookshops.

Still can’t find anything? Start one yourself!

script writing for theatre - Katie Hale

Look at writing courses.

This one isn’t essential. You can absolutely become a good writer without ever going on a writing course. After all, most of the hard work is done between you and the notebook, and it takes time. It isn’t something someone can teach you in a week, a month, or even a year.

That isn’t to say that writing can’t be taught. Writing is a craft, and any craft is teachable, as long as the student has the willingness, passion and skill to learn. But it takes time. You might learn to play the odd tune on the piano in a year, but you won’t yet be a concert pianist.

But, with that caveat made, there are still a number of really good reasons to explore courses as a means of improving your writing.

  • You can learn from experienced tutors.
  • They’re often a good way of meeting other writers, who’ll have similar writing interests to yourself – and whom you may also be able to learn from.
  • If you’re stuck in a rut with your writing, a course can help you to see things from a new perspective.
  • A course can give you confidence as a writer, and goodness knows we all need that from time to time.
  • Particularly with residential courses, or longer courses such as an MA, they can be a good way of forcing yourself to carve out writing time from your daily life.
  • They’re also incredibly fun!

As with writing groups, there are all kinds of different courses available, depending on the needs, experience level and budget of the writer.

  • Arvon and Ty Newydd are well-known as centres for tutored residential courses, usually over a weekend or a week.
  • Online courses such as the Poetry School.
  • One-day workshops, as well as longer evening / afternoon courses run by adult education providers.
  • One-off workshops through libraries, arts organisations, bookshops and book festivals.
  • I’ve also heard great things about Sophie Hannah’s Dream Author coaching programme for writers.

If you want to go down the university route, there are undergraduate courses (usually 3 years full-time or 6 years part-time), or Masters level courses (1-2 years full-time and 2-3 years part-time). Beyond that there are PhDs, if you’re more advanced.

These courses vary hugely in terms of cost, and of course we know that even well-established writers are rarely rolling in it, let alone writers who are just starting out. But many of them will offer bursary schemes for writers on low incomes, so they’re still worth exploring, even if your budget isn’t huge.

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And there are my thoughts on learning to write!

Next week: The Writer’s Apprenticeship 2: Learning the Ropes of the Industry

 

There are a number of questions I get asked about being a writer. Inevitably, these include: Have you written anything I’ve heard of? Are you going to be the next J.K.Rowling?

And, sometimes, What do you do all day?

I can’t really answer the first two questions, but I can definitely have a crack at the last one. This question usually comes from people of a generation where working from home is still a largely recent possibility (though not always), and is often asked with a look of concern that I don’t have a ‘proper job’. It’s also quite frequently followed by: But how do you earn a living?

The other way I get asked about my daily routine is more along the lines of, How do you stay motivated? If you don’t have a boss telling you to be at your work station at a certain time, then how do you make yourself get out of bed and do the work?

These are both huge topics in their own right: what constitues the job of being a writer, and how writers can earn a living. I can’t tackle the here; they both deserve their own blog posts.

(I’ve talked a bit about motivation & celebrating success as a writer here, and about a writers’ income here.)

But for now, let’s focus on our initial question: what on earth do I do all day?

the writing desk

Morning:

I like to start the day with the most important bits of being a writer: the writing. (Actually, I like to start the day with coffee, but maybe that is the most important bit of being a writer? Then once the coffee’s made and is slowly waking up my brain, I can move onto the actual writerly bits.)

I’m sure many of us have seen that inspirational message that does the rounds on social media from time to time, about how we should fill our time with the important things first and foremost, rather than cluttering it up with the little things that don’t matter. Just in case you haven’t, I’ll paraphrase:

If you take a glass jar and fill it with ping pong balls, the jar will appear full. But then if you take a handful of beads you’ll find that you can still fit them in the jar, because they’ll filter down the gaps. Once the beads are added, the jar will appear full again. But you can still add sand to the jar, as this will trickle between the beads and fill up all the really tiny gaps. But if you’d started with the sand, and then added the beads, you’d find that you wouldn’t have enough room for all the ping pong balls. The message is this: that we should make room for the big things first – in life as well as in jars.

Ok, so I admit it’s fairly corny, but it’s also true. Make room for the important things, and all the little bits and bobs will fill up around them. But if you fill up your time with all the little things, you’ll soon find you run out of time for the important stuff.

Which is why I reserve the mornings for reading, writing and editing. Sometimes I’ll do some of each ot these in a morning, and sometimes I’ll stick to just one. It depends where I am in a project.

What’s really important is that I leave all the admin bits to the…

Afternoon:

The afternoon is sort of a free-for-all. Sometimes I’ll carry on with whatever I’ve been doing in the morning. Sometimes I’ll switch to all the other stuff that makes the one-woman writing business tick (and if you’re doing it professionally, then it is a business).

What does this include? Everything from emails (don’t we all have to do these?) to submissions to competitions and magazines, to residency or funding applications. Sometimes, I try to get outside to go for a walk or something during the afternoons, to get some fresh air and get my sedentary self moving – but I’ll be honest, this happens far less than I’d like it to.

(Residencies are another matter – when I’m lucky enough to be on a residency, I can step away from all the admin bits, which means the freedom to spend some time thinking / walking / exploring my new surroundings.)

And in the evenings?

My evenings are technically non-work time, where I can read or watch Netflix or whatever, but this rarely actually happens. Often the emails and/or the admin bits drag over, and I find myself switching off my laptop much later than I’d like. This is less than ideal for a number of reasons, but especially because it means that, when I go to bed, my brain is still whirring with everything on my to-do list, and so I don’t sleep as well. So, when I have to get up and write the next day, it isn’t from quite as good a place as I would necessarily like it to be.

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2019 was to keep my evenings work-free. Like most resolutions, I did pretty well in January. But of course, it started to slip. I guess it’s one I need to reinstate.


Caveat: like most day-in-the-life pieces, this is an idealised version of my writing day, and is often discarded in favour of an all-day workshop and / or a frantic rush to meet deadlines. But this is the template I try to fit my other days around, and sometimes – just sometimes – I manage to make it happen.

 

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:

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.