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

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

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

1. Go back to basics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Make characters interact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Start a fire.

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

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

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

writing in cafes - notebooks and coffee

4. Skip back a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

You have two options.

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

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

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5. Skip forward.

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

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

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

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

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

I arrive at the castle one afternoon at the beginning of January. It’s only a couple of weeks after the shortest day, and the sun is already low behind the trees when I pull up at the unmarked double gate. There’s nothing to indicate that I’m in the right place – only a keypad, and a road winding away between the trees. I punch in the numbers I’ve been given in the email, and the gates swing slowly open.

Curling own the wooded driveway, it’s easy to think of yourself as descending not just into a valley, but into a story. Light flickers on the carpet of leaves to either side of the road, and the first signpost you reach is a small wooden notice, with one arrow pointing uphill towards the library, the other pointing down towards the castle.

When the road rounds its final bend, the castle comes into view: the red stone of the medieval keep looking warm and soft in the late afternoon light. Behind it, the valley drops away into a sway of dark green pines.

This is where I will spend the next month, in a room with a view of the turret, working on my poetry.

Mistake number one: I overpacked on warm jumpers, and underpacked on lighter clothing. Given that I was going to a medieval Scottish castle in the middle of winter, I expected it to be cold. I had visions of myself wrapped in a blanket, huddling over my desk and hugging a hot water bottle. Yeah. No. The castle has heating.

That isn’t to say that it never got cold – it did. It is still a medieval castle, after all. And it was still January. But when the heating kicked in to the full, it also got pretty warm – and I realised very quickly that I should have packed more layers.

I also should have packed fewer books.

In a way, it was good to catch up on my reading, and start making headway through my ever-growing to-be-read pile. But this also meant I couldn’t take full advantage of Hawthornden’s eclectic and highly extensive library.

Most former Fellows have donated at least one book. Then there are all the previous winner of the Hawthornden Prize, not to mention books that have just been bought by the castle, often at Edinburgh Book Festival events the Hawthornden Trust has sponsored. The result is three separate libraries, and numerous bookcases, stuffed with books.

How many libraries?

That’s right. Three.

The main library is actually in a purpose-built modern building a short walk up the bank from the castle itself. This consists of three main rooms (plus a warren of non-library private rooms, that I never quite summoned up the courage to go nosing around), and mostly contains books by former Fellows, and books that have been bought to keep the library in stock. There are fewer classics, and many more contemporary books, which reflects this.

The second library is in what gets called the Studio (it took me a while to figure out these were the same place), and is just beyond the Drawing Room in the main castle. This was by far my favourite place to work, because of the big table for spreading out my work, and because of the stunning views down the valley. The only downside was that, because it has huge windows on three sides, it got fairly cold in there, so that was one place I was grateful for those thick woolly jumpers.

We didn’t actually discover the third library till about a week into the residency. It was across the courtyard from the main part of the castle, through a heavy studded door in the medieval keep. Because it was in the oldest part of the building, and because it was the middle of January, it was quite dark and chilly, so I don’t think any of us really sat in there. It definitely felt as though, if there were ghosts in the castle, the Keep Library was where they would hang out.

And the other rooms?

At times, being at Hawthornden felt so much like being in Agatha Christie adaptation, that I almost expected to hear a scream as someone discovered a mysteriously placed body. The Drawing Room was particularly good for this – partly because just calling it the Drawing Room was enough to summon up the image of Miss Marple, but also because we all gathered here before and after dinner every evening, to unlock the mysteries of each day’s silence.

Luckily, were just had the aesthetic of a Sunday afternoon murder mystery, and nobody actually went on a stealthy killing spree.

The bedrooms at Hawthornden are all names after famous writers (I was in Bronte), and are quite varied in terms of size and furnishing. They all have a desk, a chair and a bed. Mine was quite cosy, and felt like a fancier version of an old student room. A few of them were much bigger (the ones on the first floor even had double beds), and felt more like guest bedrooms – which is presumably what they used to be.

And what about the bathrooms, I hear you ask? Like most things in the castle, the plumbing is a mixture of old and modern. There were two bathrooms and a separate toilet on my floor, and another shower room on the floor below. One of the baths had taps from 1929, and was probably the deepest bath I’ve ever bathed in. Soaking in the bubbles, looking through the window at the turret, thinking about my novel, is probably the best way to spend an afternoon.

Let’s not forget the food.

One of the things I loved about the residency was the balance between structure and freedom. In many ways, my days were entirely my own, to do whatever I wanted – to read, to write, to edit, to wander the beautiful castle grounds. But the days were also punctuated by meals, which stopped me from lapsing into a totally nocturnal, structureless zombie, and ensured my days were as productive as they could possibly be. After all, it’s so much easier to work on a full stomach.

8am-9.30am: Breakfast

12-ish: Lunch (delivered to the rooms)

6.30pm: Drinks and gathering in the Drawing Room

7pm: Dinner

The food itself was delicious. I definitely put on weight at Hawthornden.

I had porridge for breakfast practically every morning (eaten from an old pewter bowl), and there was also toast, cereal and fruit if I’d wanted extra.

Lunch was delivered to the rooms every day in a Fortnum & Mason basket, left outside the door so as not to disturb the writing. It was soup, a choice of sandwiches (selected at breakfast), a choice of fruit, or carrot sticks with humus, and sometimes a Babybel. And, as if that wasn’t enough, there was always a plate of biscuits by the kettle, and a basket of fruit downstairs if we got peckish during the afternoons. (I think it would be impossible to go hungry at Hawthornden.)

Monday to Saturday, dinner was two courses (main & pudding), and was cooked by Ruth, the castle chef. Every single meal was so delicious, that I quickly had to make a rule for myself not to have second helpings. (Another writer had a similar rule, but hers was not to have thirds.)

On Sundays, it was a three-course dinner, served in the main dining room. Since it was January, we also had a Burns Night supper in there, complete with haggis and traditional speeches. As it happened, none of our group had dietary requirements, but I know that the castle does cater for different diets (vegetarian / vegan / gluten free etc).

What about the silence?

The other way that the days are divided is by the boundary between sound and silence.

One of the things that is best known about the Hawthornden residency is its rule of silence during the day. From the end of breakfast at 9.30am, till just before dinner, at 6.30pm, ‘silence must be maintained throughout the Castle’. This is to ‘preserve the atmosphere of “peace in decent ease” which William Drummond enjoyed at Hawthornden’.

Before I arrived at the castle, I was pretty nervous about this. I’m so used to living on my own, and talking to myself while I work, or bursting into song from time to time, that I worried I’d forget myself and break the rules.

And what if I wanted to make myself a cup of tea, or I needed the loo during the day? Would my fellow writers all be irritated by the noise of the toilet flushing, or the kettle boiling, or just my footsteps in the corridor?

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. While it’s true there were no long conversations during the day, we still all said hi if we passed each other on the way to make a cup of tea, and there was no weirdness about moving around the corridors and creaking the floorboards. It seemed to be the spirit of silence that counted, rather than actual silence.

The best bits:

Time to write: For me, the best bit of any residency is the time to focus on my writing. It’s being able to leave behind all the admin for a month – to set my out-of-office and know that nobody is expecting me to reply till the residency is over. At Hawthornden, this was even more pronounced, because there’s no WiFi at the castle, and even phone signal is patchy at best (though there are spots where you can get the odd bar – mostly in the Studio library, and sitting on the first floor toilet).

But it’s also all the extra time that appears in the day, when you don’t have to think about cooking, or washing up, or cleaning, or even doing laundry. The only thing you have to do is write.

Time to read, or walk in the woods: As well as doing the actual writing, it’s important to nourish the creative bit of the brain. Otherwise it’s like trying to draw water from an empty well. Luckily, Hawthornden was perfect for this. Not only did it give me time to catch up on my reading, but it’s also in the middle of beautiful woodland.

There are two walks in the castle grounds.

The Lady Walk is essentially a clifftop walk, from the castle to a set of carved stone steps, leading down to Wallis’s Cave, which is carved in the shape of a cross. It’s horrendously muddy, and quite high up in some places, so isn’t for the faint-hearted, or for bad weather days.

The Circle Walk takes about 25 minutes, and is, as its name suggests, a circle around the castle, which offers great views of the cliffs that the castle stands on, and can be extended to walk a bit further downstream along the river.

Inspiration: Let’s be honest: staying in a medieval castle, on the edge of a cliff, in the middle of a forest in Scotland – bumping into deer while out in the grounds, lying in the bath and listening to the peregrine falcons, and falling asleep listening to the wind whistling around the turret – it would be difficult not to be inspired. And that’s even without the Pictish caves underneath the castle, or the view along the valley, or the occasional bus trip into Edinburgh city centre.

Other writers: As if staying in a fairytale medieval castle wasn’t enough, I was also surrounded by other creative people. There’s something about being in a building, sitting in your room and working, knowing that everyone around you is sitting in their rooms and working, too. It creates a spirit of endeavour.

In the evenings, this was followed by some fascinating discussions (punctured, of course, with some general chats about TV series, or anecdotes about our days). There were so many days at Hawthornden where my mind felt like it was working overtime, and I was making connections left, right and centre. Which is probably why the residency felt so productive.

Ok then – what did I achieve?

It’s often difficult to tell the impact of a residency till long after it’s finished. The mind is still busy turning everything over, processing all the thoughts you had there, and filtering them away for future use. I certainly had more ideas for things during that month than I had time to actually write about – many of which I might never get time to write about. In terms of ideas and inspiration, the achievements of the residency could keep coming long into the future. (Or it could not. Who knows?)

But in terms of physical output, I worked on both poetry and fiction at Hawthornden.

Poetry: I wrote some new poems, and edited some older ones. Some of these edits were the odd tweak here and there, but some were massive overhauls – the sort of thing where I need a concentrated period of very focused time to actually work my head around everything that’s in the poem. On a larger scale, I also edited (and re-edited, and re-edited) my collection – something I definitely couldn’t have achieved in the same period of time at home, with emails begging to be answered, and the dishes piling up on the kitchen counter.

Fiction: And, because I needed some space in between edits of my poetry collection, I spent the middle two weeks of the residency planning, and starting to write, my second novel. I’m only about 8500 words in at the moment, so it’s still a long way off yet. But I wrote enough to get my feet under the table, which is what I wanted.

I also took time to read, during the residency, without feeling guilty that I ought to be doing something else. For once, January’s books were a nice balance of prose and poetry:

  • The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman
  • The Hoopoe’s Eye, by Mark Carson
  • Festive Spirits, by Kate Atkinson
  • Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis
  • White Papers, by Martha Collins
  • Diary of a Somebody, by Brian Bilston
  • Sisters, by Jennifer Copley
  • The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue
  • Sal, by Mick Kitson
  • The Craft, ed. Rishi Dastidar

Any downsides?

Any residency has downsides. One of the downsides of Hawthornden was the amount of weight I put on due to how delicious all the food was. (Though the couple of glasses of wine with dinner each evening probably didn’t help. And admittedly, this was pretty much entirely my own fault.)

But in all seriousness – the Hawthornden Castle writers’ residency is quite an intensive experience. You’re staying in a castle with four other writers for a month, seeing each other every evening and most mornings, depending on what time you all make it down to breakfast. You’re all also working quite intensively during the days, so it could be easy for things to get fraught if you let them.

Luckily, we all got along very well, and were all quite amenable. We did have some pretty intense, and occasionally heated, discussions, but we always took great care to come out of them still friends, and to leave any intensity within a particular conversation, rather than letting it carry forward into our relationships with each other.

But I can imagine that, if there was somebody in the group who you didn’t get on with, or if there was a big personality clash, it could make it a very difficult month. I think it’s important to go into the residency being aware of this – and for everyone to make the effort to get along, and to respect each other’s views and personalities. And I’m so glad that this was the case for my group!

Would I go back?

Absolutely! Unfortunately, you have to wait five years before being allowed to apply again, so I won’t be heading back any time in the near future. But I’ll absolutely be recommending it to other writers!

 

How to apply:

For the Hawthornden residency, you have to apply the old-fashioned way. There’s no online application, or public email address, so you have to write a letter to the director, requesting an application form:

Hawthornden Castle
The International Retreat for Writers
Lasswade
Midlothian
EH18 1EG

The application form, once you receive it, also has to be submitted in hard copy, along with two professional references. The application deadline is in June each year, for residencies in the following calendar year.

Also read: A Few Thoughts On: Writing Residencies

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

What is a writing residency?

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

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

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

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

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

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

What’s so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things About: Writing on the Move

What’s not so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

The other issue I want to talk about is loneliness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to survive a writing residency:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to watch out for:

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

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

Shared accommodation:

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

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

Application fees:

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

Fee-paying residencies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, so where can I go?

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

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

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

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

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

The New Yorker: Little-Known Writing Residencies

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

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

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

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

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

Write:

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

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

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 1: Learning to Write

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

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

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 2: Learning the Industry Ropes

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

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

Build Your Brand:

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

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

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

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

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

So how does this apply to you as a writer?

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

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

Talk To Other Writers:

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

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

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

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

So how do you meet other writers?

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

Yes, OK – Use Social Media:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and one last thing…

Debunking The Myth:

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

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

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

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

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Good luck! And happy writing.

 

If you want a sell-out event at a literary festival, call it something like ‘How To Get Published’. I’ve been to numerous of these types of talk and panel discussion over the years, and they’re always well attended.

In my experience, there are four main types of people who attend these events:

  1. Those who’ve spent years honing their craft and writing their manuscript, who want to start querying to agents, but find the publishing industry a bit tricky to understand, and want to get to grips with how it all works.
  2. Those who don’t have anything publishable at the moment, but also want to understand the industry they’re aiming to be a part of, and also to meet other writers / network with industry professionals.
  3. Those who are starting out (or have started fairly recently) and want to get a sense of what’s involved in seeing this whole writing thing through.
  4. And, inevitably, those who just want a quick fix to make them a published writer.

If you’re the fourth kind of person, then sorry, but the road to publication is long and hard, and there are so many steps before you even get that far. If you’re one of the first three, then you’re probably already aware of this, and will therefore probably get a lot more out of this kind of event.

But I’ve also been to events where an audience member has asked ‘how do you get a book published’ and the panellist has, slightly sniffily, said that you need to write the book first – as if everyone who might be interested in how to get published is Person 4, not Person 1-3. Sure, Person 4 exists (and I’m sure we’ve all met one or two of them in our time), but they’re not the only type of unpublished writer out there.

Thankfully, not all panel events are like this. The other week, I went to a refreshingly honest event at the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing, with hugely useful advice and experience sharing from all sectors of the book industry – from writers all the way through to booksellers. If you can find events like this, they’re a great way of learning how the industry operates.

Because let’s be honest, the publishing industry can be incredibly confusing.

Like any industry, publishing comes toting its own bag of jargon: advance, acquisitions, UKCW, ARCs, earning out… And even if you sit down with some sort of bilingual publishing/standard English dictionary, the process can still seem somewhat mysterious. After all, what does an editor actually do? How does a commissioning editor differ from an editorial assistant, or a proofreader, for that matter? How does it all work?

There’s no quick answer to all of this. Partly because, like any industry, publishing has far too many layers to unpick in a single blog post, and partly because every publishing house operates slightly differently.

Usually, it operates a bit like a flow chart: the author writes the book (or pitches it if you’re writing non-fiction), and then submits to agents; once accepted by the agent (‘representation’), the writer will usually work with the agent on the manuscript, before the agent then tries to sell the rights to publishers; once a publisher has agreed to publish the book (‘acquisitions’), the writer then works directly with the editor at the publishing house towards a final version of the book, which is then published.

Of course, there are many more steps within that – and even these steps are subject to variation. For instance, some publishing houses don’t require you to have an agent, and if you’re writing non-fiction, you’ll often pitch the book to agencies and publishers before you’ve finished writing it. There is no single path to getting published.

I repeat: THERE IS NO SINGLE PATH TO GETTING PUBLISHED.

So if there is no single path through the publishing process, how do you go about figuring out what any of those paths look like, and how do you know which one might be right for you?

the writing desk

Author Events:

I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth mentioning again. A lot of literary festivals will have events specifically geared towards people who are looking to publish a book. Often this will take the form of a panel discussion, featuring a writer or two, and a couple of people who work in publishing (maybe an editor and an agent). They tend to being with each person describing something about their role in the publishing process, and then open up to a Q&A. Of course, there are other formats, too, but this one is fairly common.

These events can be incredibly useful for helping writers to get a grip on how the whole thing works, but also for making the whole thing seem more human. After all, although from afar the publishing industry might seem like a great big faceless machine, it’s really all about individual people, who all have individual tastes.

They’re also a good way of networking with other writers who are probably in a similar position to you, and at a similar stage of their development as writers. After all, you’re all trying to figure out how it works together, right?

However: while these events can be incredibly useful, be aware that they come in all shapes and sizes – and at all kinds of cost. The biggest, most expensive event isn’t always the best. In fact, it’s often the smaller, more personal event that can be the most useful for something like this.

Also beware of blanket statements. As I said, there’s no single path through the publishing industry, so what is true for one person (even if they’re a commissioning editor at a massive publishing house) might not be true for another. I’m obviously not saying to ignore professional advice, because if you’re going to do that, then there’s no point going to these things in the first place – but just take things with a pinch of salt. Ask yourself if it rings true to your own experience. For instance, I’ve heard of events where writers have been told things like ‘nobody’s publishing young adult fiction any more’ and ‘you can’t be a writer if you live somewhere rural’. If there’s anything like this which strikes you as untrue, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.

Google:

And where to get that second opinion? If the in-person events don’t help, or if you’ve got points that need clarifying, then don’t be afraid to google it.

I know that sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often I speak to people who don’t understand how the publishing industry works, and have never even thought of using the internet to help them find out. Granted, it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, and like anything online, you have to take it with a pinch of salt. But it’s a free way of getting your head around how it all works – ideally with a glass of wine or two.

And if you’re not sure where to start with your googling, here are a few online resources to set you off on your search:

WAY:

I’ve already mentioned Writers & Artists above, but as well as having a plethora of online resources, they also publish the annual Writers & Artists Yearbook. This is a hugely useful resource for anyone who’s on the brink of looking at publication, with listings of agents and publishers, what sort of thing they’re look for, and details on how to submit to them.

If you’ve done all your writing bits, and your editing bits, etc etc, and you’re looking at securing an agent, or publication through a house that accepts unsolicited submissions, then sit down with a copy of the Writers & Artists Yearbook. I’d also recommend using it in conjunction with agencies’ own websites, and combining book research with online research. (If you don’t want to buy a copy of the Writers’ & Artists Yearbook, then check your local library to see if they have it in stock.)

Acknowledgements:

If you’re looking for representation or publication, then try making a pile of books that have something in common with yours. Are there books written in a similar style and genre, which you think would complement your own? Books that deal with similar themes? Books aimed at a similar audience?

Agencies and publishing imprints tend to have specialities. So, if there’s a book that you think might sit well alongside your own, do some digging on it. See who it’s published by. See who the writers’ agent is. (This is something you can google, or just look in the acknowledgements at the back of the book. If an agent is any good, the writer should have thanked them there.)

I’m not saying that this agent will therefore definitely want to represent your book as well. For a start off, most agents probably won’t want writers on their list who are too similar, as they’ll end up in competition with one another. But it’s a good guess that your book might well be their sort of thing. It’s a place to start.

Mentoring Programmes:

I’ve already said that there’s no single path towards getting published. One alternative to traditional methods (or working alongside traditional methods) can be mentoring.

Mentoring programmes for writers seem to be on the rise, which can only be a good thing. They vary massively in terms of what they offer – from a promise of publication at the end of them, to financial assistance, to developmental support, to editorial guidane. They also have varying criteria for applicants.

I’ve benefited from a couple of mentoring programmes over my career so far. One of these (through the Wordsworth Trust) helped me get my first poetry pamphlet ready to submit to publishers. The second (WriteNow, run by Penguin Random House) helped me to write my first novel, and to get an agent.

From Idea to Book: My Journey to Publication

When you’re trying to get your foot through the publishing door, it can be helpful to have somebody pulling it open from the other side.

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Next week: The Writer’s Apprenticeship 3: Building a Profile

 

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