Like a lot of things this year, my regular blog posts have gone out of the window. After all, once I’d written about why I wasn’t really writing very much, what else was there to say?

But since then, things have started to pick up a little bit. I won’t say ‘get back to normal’, because that’s still a very long way off, especially with things like residencies and in-person workshops. But there are definitely more things happening. And a few things have slipped under the radar without my really noticing them.

So what have the past five months looked like for me?

A Few Good Things:

Writing:

To say I haven’t been writing isn’t entirely true – though at the beginning of lockdown, I did find it incredibly difficult to get even just a few words down on paper. But what is true is that my writing practice has changed slightly.

For one thing, the novel I was planning to work on has been put on hold. This is partly because, during lockdown, I haven’t had the brainspace for something as big an sprawling as a novel. There are just too many movable parts, and too many options, so it just wasn’t really working for me. I also ran into the problem of what to do about lockdown within the novel – something I know a lot of writers have been grappling with this year. Do you include lockdown, which probably drastically changes your story? Do you set the book in 2019, which feels weird, because you know that, whatever the ending, the characters are heading towards lockdown? Nothing felt quite right.

So, instead of the novel, I’ve been playing around with some short stories. In a short story, at least, it feels easier to suspend disbelief and forget about coronaviris for a few thousand words; it becomes easier to set them in the non-specific contemporary.

I’ve also been writing a little bit of poetry – although weirdly, a lot of the headspace that I’ve struggled with in terms of novel-writing has also been a struggle in terms of poetry. Something about the lateral way of approaching the world in a poem, which makes it a different process to write. I was lucky enough to have a poem included in Carol Ann Duffy’s Write Where We Are Now project, documenting the lockdown period through poetry.

I was also lucky enough to receive support from the Arts Council’s Emergency Response Fund, which has been a huge help in supporting me over the past six months, when almost all of my income has disappeared.

Bits of a manuscript laid out on a rug

Fellfoot Fables:

I say ‘almost’, because I have still had one project running. Fellfoot Fables was originally planned as a series of in-person schools workshops, engaging children from schools at the foot of the Pennines with their local landscape, and encouraging them to write about it through poetry.

Obviously, the in-person workshops weren’t able to happen, but we did manage to move the project online, so that the workshops could be delivered digitally. We’ve also branched out so that members of the community can get involved, too, and there are a series of video prompts to encourage you to write about your local area. (You don’t have to be in the Pennines area to do this – anyone can take part!)

Get involved in Fellfoot Fables here.

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

A lot of spending time outside:

Like a lot of people during lockdown, I’ve been spending more time outdoors – which always sounds counter-intuitive when I say it out loud, but also makes total sense. Very little work on means more time for walks around my local area, or planting potatoes, or whatever. Not being able to go to cafes has led to a lot more picnics. Needing to vary up my writing space, as well as being at home instead of on residencies that have been postponed, has meant spending a lot more time sitting in my garden shed (usually with the neighbour’s cat for company).

Since lockdown began, I’ve also managed to complete Couch to 5k! I hadn’t really run since school, so this has been absolutely huge for me. As well as the exercise, it’s also been a great way to get myself listening to more podcasts and audio books, and to get myself thinking differently about my own writing; what is it about being on the move that changes up our thought processes?

I’m not still doing 5k runs (I had a minor injury almost as soon as I’d completed the Couch to 5k programme – long story, but it stopped me running for a couple of weeks), but I am trying to keep up with the odd 3k-ish run, just to keep myself doing it, and to get myself away from my desk. And honestly, it’s been a game changer!

Looking forward to seeing what September brings…

The Past Five Months in Books:

I’ve been reading less than usual over the past five months. Something about the inability to focus for more than about 15-20 minutes at a time, which has led to a lot more Netflix binging, and a lot fewer books. So, alongside reading books for the first time, I also did a bit of re-reading – somehow I find it easier to concentrate when I already know how a book is going to end, as though the ending is a familiar face calling me to it.

  • The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey
  • Marine Objects and Some Language, by Suzannah V Evans
  • Terrific Mother, by Lorrie Moore
  • Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munroe
  • A Maze of Death, by Philip K Dick
  • Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer
  • The Singing Glacier, by Helen Mort
  • Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Debutante and Other Stories, by Leonora Carrington
  • Dad, Remember You Are Dead, by Jacqueline Saphra
  • All the Harry Potters
  • Rendang, by Will Harris
  • New Hunger, by Ella Duffy
  • Bark, by Lorrie Moore
  • Shine, Darling, by Ella Frears
  • What Happens to Girls, by Jennifer Copley
  • Sabriel, by Garth Nix
  • Lireal, by Garth Nix
  • Abhorsen, by Garth Nix
  • Dancing Girls, by Margaret Atwood
  • Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, by Carly Brown
  • How To Wash A Heart, by Bhanu Kapil
  • Noughts & Crosses, by Malorie Blackman
  • The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien
  • Outsiders: a short story anthology (3 of Cups Press)
  • Ghostly Stories, by Celia Fremlin

The Past Five Months in Pictures:

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the imbalance in how the publishing industry represents writers of colour, and particularly black writers. I’ve been following the #publishingpaidme hashtag, which worked to highlight the discrepancy between advances received by white authors, and advances received by writers of colour. I’ve followed the call from the Black Writers’ Guild, to redress the systemic racism at play in the UK publishing industry. I strongly believe that publishing as an industry needs to up its game when it comes to how it relates (or fails to relate) to so-called minority writers, whether that be writers of colour, disabled or neurodivergent writers, LGBTQ+ writers, writers from economically marginalised backgrounds, or other writers who experience barriers to traditional publishing.

And I’ve thought: it’s all very well agreeing with all of this on twitter, but what can I actually do?

Well, one thing I can do is to offer mentoring to 2 emerging black writers living in the UK: one emerging poet, and one emerging novelist.

The mentoring will consist of four 1-hour sessions (on Skype), between the beginning of August and the end of 2020. We’ll agree an individual plan and a shedule before we start, but for each session, I can offer feedback on up to 3000 words of prose or 150 lines of poetry (sent in advance).

I’m looking for applications from black writers who are:

  • UK-based
  • Over 18
  • An emerging novelist or poet
  • Without an agent
  • Yet to publish a single-authored book / pamphlet

A bit about me:

I’m a poet and novelist, based in Cumbria. Over my career so far, I’ve benefited hugely from being mentored myself, both through the Wordsworth Trust (as a poet), and through Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme (as a novelist).

My debut novel, My Name is Monster, is a literary post-apocalyptic female retelling of Robinson Crusoe, published by Canongate. My poetry draws on the lyric tradition, and is published by flipped eye and Southword. I’m interested in heritage, myth and fairytale, feminism & the female monster, versioning, the rural, and travel. That isn’t to say you have to be interested in those things in order to apply, and that isn’t necessarily a list of what I’m looking for – it’s just to give you a general sense of my own work.

If you’re trying to decide whether I would be a good fit to mentor you, feel free to have a read of an extract of My Name is Monster, or to read some of my poetry.

How to apply:

Please apply using the contact form at the bottom of the page, letting me know:

  • Your name & email address
  • Whether you’re applying as a poet or a novelist
  • Tell me about you (max 100 words)
  • For novelists, tell me about your book (max 100 words), OR
  • For poets, tell me about your poetry / themes / poetic style (100 words)

Deadline: Friday 17th July

UPDATED DEADLINE: SUNDAY 19TH JULY

I’ll aim to get back in touch with everyone who applies by the end of July, to let you know whether you’ve been successful.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you, and to reading about your work!

 

This week was supposed to see the paperback publication of my debut novel, My Name is Monster – about a woman trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, after the Sickness has killed her parents. Ironically, the paperback publication has had to be postponed because of Coronavirus.

(The paperback publication is now scheduled for January 2021, but don’t worry – you can still buy the hardback! And of course the e-book & audiobook are available from libraries.)

But it got me thinking: it’s amazing how much has changed since the hardback came out a year ago. Obviously, since June 2019 there have been som enormous global changes – perhaps the most obvious one being the current Coronavirus crisis. But I’ve also changed how I think about myself as a writer, and how I approach my creative practice.

Proof pages of My Name is Monster, by Katie Hale

It’s been a while since I quit one of my part-time jobs to focus more fully on my writing practice. Four and a half years, to be precise. Ever since then, I’ve described myself as ‘a writer’. And, ever since I signed my contract with Canongate about two years ago, for the publication of Monster, I’ve actually thought of myself as a writer, too.

Up until that point, I’d been thinking of my writing career in terms of individual progressions: a poem in a poetry journal; a competition win; a pamphlet published; acceptance on a mentoring scheme; getting an agent; finishing the novel; getting an offer of publication. And, even though every published writer I’d spoken to had warned me not to, I saw ‘getting published’ as the pinnacle of achievement. You publish a full-length book, and that somehow makes you a ‘real writer’.

So how did that work out?

In the first instance, I want to say that I was (and still am) hugely pleased with the finished book. I know writers who’ve been in the horrible position of hating their front cover, or opening the final copy to find it littered with typos. I’m lucky, in that Canongate are a superb publisher. I’m so proud of all the work I did with my editor; I love the hardback jacket design (and the paperback design is going to be pretty nice, too); and the publication really did (and still does) feel like a huge achievement.

But.

Once the book was out in the world, and I’d got over the post-publication library talks and festival appearances, and the initial thrill of seeing it in the Waterstones window, I was faced with the question: what next?

It was strange, the realisation that those individual steps kept on going, after publication. Some of those steps are to do with the book itself. For instance, My Name is Monster was shortlisted for a Golden Tentacle at the Kitschies Awards. It earned me a residency at Gladstones Library.

But for the most part, a writer doesn’t have all that much control over how a book is received after it’s out in the world. Instead, all those individual steps you have to take end up being about things that you can control. In other words: future projects.

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

So where am I now?

I signed off on the finished manuscript of My Name is Monster about a year before publication. During that time, there was a lot of proofing and line editing, but also a lot of moving onto something new, which has continued into the year since the book came out.

For the most part, I took a break from fiction. After all, a novel is a big beast to write, and I didn’t want to surface from one just to dive straight back into another. So, while I have been thinking about and planning a second novel, it’s mostly just stuff that’s been going on in my head – something to get down to writing post-lockdown. Meanwhile, I’ve been writing poetry (following on from my two pamphlets, I’m working on a full-length collection), and exploring writing short stories, which may or may not turn into anything.

And what about those individual steps?

I still feel like I’m taking step after step in the right direction. A competition shortlisting here. A journal publication there. And (before lockdown hit) a couple of writing residencies that allowed me to ignore admin work for a while and dedicate serious time to writing.

But mostly, those individual steps just involve sitting down at the desk every morning and writing: hitting a word count and working my way, ever so gradually, towards another book.

*

My Name is Monster will be published in paperback in January 2021, along with a swanky new version of the cover. Till then, here’s a video of me reading from the opening of the book. Enjoy!

My Name is Monster – opening from Katie Hale on Vimeo.

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

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

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

1. Go back to basics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Make characters interact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Start a fire.

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

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

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

writing in cafes - notebooks and coffee

4. Skip back a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

You have two options.

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

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

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5. Skip forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • residencies
  • radio work
  • grant funding

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

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

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

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

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

The main changes from 2018-2019:

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

Income by Month:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a writing residency?

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

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

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

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

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

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

What’s so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things About: Writing on the Move

What’s not so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

The other issue I want to talk about is loneliness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to survive a writing residency:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to watch out for:

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

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

Shared accommodation:

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

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

Application fees:

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

Fee-paying residencies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, so where can I go?

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

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

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

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

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

The New Yorker: Little-Known Writing Residencies

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

Publications:

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

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

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

My Name is Monster: available from all good bookshops!

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

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

Read the opening poem from Assembly Instructions here.

Residencies:

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

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

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

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

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

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

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

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

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

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

And speaking of beautiful places…

Arts Council Funding:

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

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

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

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

Radio:

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

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

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

And the rest:

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

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

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

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

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

So what next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have some exciting news! And also a (very small, very simple) request.

Next Sunday, I’ll be in Edinburgh, reading from and talking about My Name is Monster at Edinburgh International Book Festival. And, as if this weren’t exciting enough, I’m also up for the festival’s First Book Award!

The Award is decided based on a popular vote, so what I’m asking is very simple: please vote for My Name is Monster to win the award!

It’s really straightforward – there’s an option to leave a short review, but you don’t have to. You just have to register your name & email address, and then click the big button marked ‘VOTE’. What could be simpler?

VOTE HERE

And if you’re still undecided, why not read the first page of My Name is Monster, to help you make up your mind:

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Extract from My Name is Monster:

When the world is burning, it’s easy to forget about ice.

Easy for most people, that is. I knew nothing but freeze for over a year. I lived with the ice, on the ice, inside it – locked on the island as the rest of the world grew desperate with rage and disease. As the missiles fell and cities were blasted by a thousand-degree heat, I struggled to keep warm.

Frostbite and a chill so keen it cuts right through the heart: that’s the price of survival.

Then what?

After everyone else was dead, I sat by a window for three days watching the glacier creak and break. When I took off my trousers, my skin flaked away and my legs itched. I scratched at the dead skin until I was pink and sore, then I got dressed again.

I thought about the scientists who had vanished into a crevasse twenty years earlier and were never found, how their little bodies would one day tumble out of the glacier’s mouth like babies being born, frozen solid and perfectly preserved in their brightly coloured thermals.

People used to think that ice is white, but it isn’t. There is all kinds of history inside it, waiting to be brought out.

… want to carry on reading? Click here to buy the book.

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

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

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

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

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

Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Under Northern Skies

Back in summer 2018, I worked with a group of former miners from Whitehaven on an oral history project, as part of Tables Turned, a three year participation project run by the National Trust and partners, which is all about bringing together community groups, young people, historians, curators and artists in projects that deepen understanding, build new partnerships and inspire creativity.

After meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was commissioned by the National Trust to write a poem in response.

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

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

The month in books:

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

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

The month in pictures:

If you’ve glanced at this blog any time over the past few months, or if you follow me even vaguely on any social media platform, you’ll likely have noticed that my debut novel came out just over a week ago. ‘What’s that?’ you yell in mock surprise, a sarcastic hand flying to your cheek, ‘A novel? Well why didn’t you say something?’

Alright, I get the point. My Name is Monster came out ten days ago, and (with the exception of a photo of a giant bee) I haven’t really talked about much else since.

(Not really relevant to the post, but it was enormous!)

What actually happens when you launch a book?

In some ways, not a lot. One day your book isn’t available to buy in shops; the next day it is. This doesn’t always happen on the day you expect it to, either. Unless your book is embargoed till a specific date (think: queuing up at midnight for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), bookshops tend to just put the copies on the shelves the moment they arrive in stock. This could be a few days before the book’s official release date, so that rather than some momentous arrival, they sort of trickle into the public. I didn’t realise this until it was actually happening, so it was a bit of a surprise when people started sending me pictures of the book out and about in the wild, before its official release date.

Books are a bit like elections, in that they almost always come out on a Thursday. Presumably this is due to some social study about us being more receptive to culture, or more likely to spend money, or just in a better mood in general, towards the end of the week. Who knows? My secondary school concerts were always on a Thursday too.

This means that some writers will wait to have their official launch celebration till the Friday, or the Saturday. Some will have it on the launch day itself. I’m not sure it matters really – I think it’s about what’s most convenient for the writer and the venue.

Usually, a launch will consist of a reading, usually in a bookshop or a library, followed by a signing and maybe some wine. This is what I did on the Thursday that my book came out, at Cakes & Ale: the cafe run by the wonderful independent Carlisle bookshop, Bookends. It was a lovely evening, filled with lovely people, and a nice long signing queue! This, I suppose, was my informal formal bookshop launch, and it was a lovely way to begin the process of sending Monster out into the world.

But I remember reading an article once, a long time ago, where someone said: You can do anything to launch a book. 

So of course, I also channeled my inner royalty, and had a garden party.

Obviously, since this is Cumbria, I planned for the rain, and borrowed a couple of party tents from Morland Choristers’ Camp, as well as a bell tent from touring Shakespeare company, The Three Inch Fools. (Who says being well-connected in the arts doesn’t pay off?) It was lucky I did, as well, because although the morning’s torrential downpour had eased off slightly by the time the party got underway, it was still a bit drizzly throughout the afternoon – not to mention cold!

But, weather aside, it was a joyful event: totally informal (although I did do a couple of readings from the book during the course of the party, and I signed a lot of copies). It was an opportunity to celebrate and to drink plenty of Pimms with plenty of friends. I highly recommend it as a way of launching a debut novel!

So what now?

Although the official launch events are over, I’ve still got plenty of opportunities lined up for talking about the book. Most of these are in Cumbria, but there are also a few a little further afield.

This is what I suppose most people would call a book tour – though I always find that term a bit misleading, because when you talk about being ‘on tour’, I think a lot of people imagine you’re away for long periods of time, staying in hotels every night as you travel from place to place. Whereas for me, I’m spending most nights in my own bed and just driving to each event the same way I’d drive to anywhere I was working on a project.

(Thanks to Will Smith from Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere for this infographic!)

The exception to this is the London bit of the tour, where of course I will be staying overnight:

19 June:
The Feminist Book Society presents: Motherhood – the last feminist taboo // Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road, London, 6.30pm

20 June:
Writers’ Night: Katie Hale & Hanna Jameson // Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London, 7pm

So how do you organise a book tour?

Like everything else when it comes to publishing a book, it has to be done in advance. You can’t just decide a week before the book comes out that you’d like to do some events. I started talking to Bookends about my launch night back in November, and to Cumbria Library Service in about January. This advanced planning was particularly important for me, because I knew I would be out of the country for about 7 weeks in the lead-up to the book coming out, so I had to be on my toes from the start. (When in doubt, I always make lists – and I made a lot of lists in the months leading up to the launch.)

This is also where those contacts I was talking about earlier can come in handy. I already had a relationship with Bookends: apart from being my local bookshop (or one of them), they supported me with a guest slot at an open mic when my first poetry pamphlet came out, and are jointly responsible for Borderlines Book Festival (along with Cumbria the Library Service & Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery), where I ran a poetry workshop last year. Similarly, I had a contact at the Library Service, through a network we both used to sit on when I was working as a project officer for a literary project a few years ago. These sorts of connections aren’t essential, but it always helps if people know who you are before you ask them for a favour!

As for the other bits of the tour, they just sort of fell into place by themselves. The London events, and the Kendal & Lancaster Waterstones events, were organised for me by my publisher, Canongate. And the event at Sam Read Bookseller also came about through a personal connection: the lovely Will Smith & Polly Atkin, who fed me lots of pasta and jacket potatoes (not at the same time), while I was their neighbour as Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust back in February.

How’s it all going so far?

Busy.

I don’t think I realised quite how much of an emotional and physical toll the stress / pressure / need to always be alert and sound intelligent would take on me. And that’s on top of all the worrying about whether people are going to actually like this book you’ve written.

Luckily, I’m starting from a good place. Not only do I have a healthy smattering of events lined up, but the book itself looks beautiful. The cover design is the work of Canongate artist Gill Heeley, and I think that goes a long way towards how the book has been received at a bookseller level. For instance, most places I’ve seen it, the cover has been face out (so that the front of the book is visible, rather than just the spine), and in some cases it’s even been on freestanding displays or on tables. All of these things increase the prominence of the book in the shop, and push towards it (hopefully) selling more copies. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it all continues to go well.

And in the meantime, I have this weekend to catch up on sleep, hoover my kitchen and curl up by the fire with a book – which means that next week, I’ll be raring and ready to try to sound intelligent in book events once again.

10 pieces of advice for launching a book:

  1. Do your preparation in advance. This goes from physical preparation like organising book events, to getting in touch with local press contacts, to writing blog posts etc that will go live on the day. Part of this is about creating some sort of hype around the book, getting people excited, and part is just reducing work for yourself. You want to make things as easy as possible for yourself when the launch day finally comes around. Also bear in mind, you’re going to have to talk about your book a lot, so make sure you know in advance what you’re going to say about it. I worked out my elevator pitch with my publicist back around Christmastime, and I’ve been practising things to say about the book ever since – usually in the car when nobody can hear me!
  2. Take lots of pretty pictures of your book. You’re going to be posting about the book a lot on social media. Whether you’re talking about receptions it’s had, or trying to promote book events, these things always look better if there’s an eyecatching picture to go with them. So make sure you have a stock of these (and maybe keep them in a separate album on your phone / computer for ease), because you don’t want to keep using the same picture every time.
  3. Plan your outfits. This sounds shallow, but deciding what to wear is hard enough even when you’re not stressing about the fact that your book has just been released to the world at large. If you have a selection of outfits that you know you can wear to book events, which you’ve chosen in advance, then it takes the pressure off. Also, these outfits can become part of your ‘look’ as a writer – which I suppose is a way of branding yourself. Maybe I’ll do another post sometime about branding yourself as a writer, as there’s too much to fit into one little corner of this post.
  4. Don’t try to go on a diet in the weeks directly before or after the launch. I know, I know. Even looking at this now it sounds like a stupid idea. Why give myself extra pressure? Besides, when you’re bombing around the county / country doing book events, sometimes you just need to stop on the way back home for late-night chips & gravy.
  5. Don’t try to squeeze writing funding bids in between a full week of book events. Or any particularly stressful work, for that matter. Save your time and energy for promoting your book. And if there are funding applications with deadlines around the same time as your book launch, try to find out about them in advance, so you don’t give yourself a frantic few days of multitasking. That said, don’t forget about the rest of your work life either. Emails don’t just go away just because you have a book out – if anything, they increase. Remember to factor in admin time.
  6. If you have to work on something, make it a creative project. Almost certainly, you write because it’s something you enjoy, because it’s a drive that comes from deep within you and you can’t ignore it, because it’s some sort of unhealthy addiction and there’s a peace to be found in giving in to the urge to write. This might actually be the exact antidote to all that pressure of the book being launched. While you’re writing, you can forget the stress and the hype and the pressure of the book you’ve just launched doing well, and focus instead on the craft of a new project. Lose yourself in something new.
  7. Eat well. Late-night chips & gravy notwithstanding, it’s important to eat well. Don’t skip breakfast. Don’t try to subsist on leftover chocolate cake from launch event number one. Don’t spend every evening valiantly trying to get through the leftover open bottles of wine and prosecco. Honestly.
  8. Get plenty of sleep. Promoting a book is tiring. The physical toll of doing numerous events on consecutive nights is bad enough, but the emotional toll of the stress of it, the worry over how the book will be received, and the mental toll of having to think of intelligent-sounding things to say all the time – all of these add up. Make sure to factor in days off when you can have early nights and lie-ins.
  9. Take time to enjoy it. I’ve talked a lot about the stress and the pressure of launching a book, but obviously it’s also a pretty exciting time. After all, this is something you’ve been working towards for years. For as long as you’ve wanted to be a writer. For a long time, this was your end-goal. Your I’ve-made-it moment. Enjoy it, because it’s going to go quickly, and you don’t want to back on it and realise that you were too stressed to actually savour your own achievement. You’ve produced a book and should be proud of yourself. Take moments to appreciate that.
  10. Give yourself something to look forward to when it’s over. As I said, most likely this was your end-goal for a long time. You’ll be hectically busy, but you’ll also be on an emotional high. But, as every parent-of-a-toddler knows, emotional highs are nearly always followed by an emotional crash. The likelihood is, once your manic couple of weeks are done, you’ll be feeling pretty flat. So give yourself something to look forward to. It could be a holiday. It could be meeting up with friends. It could just be sitting by the fire with a pile of books and an unlimited supply of pizza. Whatever floats your boat.

A Book Launch Week in Pictures:

 

Almost from the moment my flight landed back from the US, I started gearing up towards the next big event of my writing year. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably already clocked that that big event is the release of my debut novel, My Name is Monster, which officially comes out on Thursday 6th June. The finished copies of the book were actually waiting for me when I got home, looking beautiful and shiny through the jetlagged haze.

Since then, it’s been largely a case of getting ready for them to be released into the world. I went up to Edinburgh and signed 135 copies of the book to be sent to independent bookshops. I’ve been writing blog posts. I’ve been talking to local press about the release, and trying to work out what I’m going to say at the launch, and which section(s) of the book I’m going to read. I’ve been talking about it a lot on social media.

Between that and catching up on 6 weeks’ worth of admin, the actual writing time has been a bit thin on the ground. That’s ok. For one thing, I managed to get a lot of writing done while I was in the States, and for another, being a writer isn’t just about writing.

A few good things:

1 – Open The Door Festival

A couple of weeks ago I attended part of the excellent Open The Door festival at Glasgow Women’s Library. What initially drew me to the festival was that my friend and all-round wonderful woman Jess Orr was involved in organising it, and was going to be interviewing Ali Smith during the event on the Saturday evening. But when I looked into it a bit more deeply, and actually googled the programme for the day, I quickly realised that enjoyment of this festival was going to go way beyond personal connection.

Unlike most festivals, which have an audience sitting and listening to what a writer / speaker has to say, then applauding politely and making their way to the bar, Open The Door operated a bit more like a conference, with a choice of interactive breakout sessions, meaning that the attendees were as much a part of the discussion and development of ideas as the writers and facilitators.

This approach led to a much friendlier sort of festival, and made it much easier for interesting conversations to spring up during the breaks.

2 – Theatre by the Lake

This month, the new trailer for the Theatre by the Lake was released, with words by yours truly. This was something I was commissioned to write several months ago, so by the time it came out it had slipped off my radar slightly. So it was a lovely surprise when the finished video popped up on facebook.

 

3 – Normal Life

One thing that has really been great this month has been getting back into my normal life after so many weeks away, and particularly getting back into attending my normal writing groups.

There’s something about writing groups – the combination of regular structured creative input and the support of trusted peers – that helps feed the creative process. Going back to my regular poetry group and my regular fiction group felt as much like a homecoming as it did landing at Heathrow airport. And of course, it was great to see all those familiar faces again.

Going to America was incredible, and such a boost for my writing and for the particular project I was researching. But returning to my own writing community was equally wonderful.

The month in books:

As with the writing, the reading has been slightly less this month. And, as with the writing, that’s kind of ok. The trick, I think (I hope), is not letting the lack of reading / writing become a habit. Which, given how much I’m itching to get back to both, I don’t think it will.

It’s been prose-heavy this month – something that often happens when I’m limited for time, as reading becomes more escapism at the end of a long day, rather than a habit of immersing myself in poetry first thing in the morning.

I’ve also read four books by friends this month, which always alters the feel of a month’s reading. Two of these came from the WriteNow scheme: Emma Smith-Barton’s The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, and Nels Abbey’s Think Like a White Man. The others were The Accusation, by Zosia Wand, and salt slow, by Julia Armfield. I can heartily recommend all four of these books. Each occupies a different genre (YA fiction; satirical self-help book; thriller; and literary short stories), and each is an example of blooming good writing in that genre.

salt slow is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year (although Lanny is nudging at it from a very close, and debatable, second place), so I think it’s fair to say that May has been a hugely enjoyable month when it comes to books.

  • The Accusation, by Zosia Wand
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, by Emma Smith-Barton
  • Scepticism Inc., by Bo Fowler
  • Lanny, by Max Porter
  • Anatomy of a Soldier, by Harry Parker
  • Natural Mechanical, by J O Morgan
  • Think Like a White Man, by Dr Boule Whytelaw III / Nels Abbey
  • salt slow, by Julia Armfield

The month in pictures:

Last weekend, I went to the Open the Door festival at Glasgow Women’s Library, where I heard (among other people) Ali Smith talking about the books and writers who had opened the door for her. It got me thinking about the writers that did that for me – both for poetry and for prose.

In poetry, I think this is slightly more complex, as a lot of the poets who have opened the poetry door for me have done it not just through their own writing, but also as individual people I’ve worked with. But what about fiction?

I’ve talked before about how Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme gave me the confidence to think of myself as a fiction writer in general – but what about the specific novel? What were the books that opened the door to My Name is Monster?

Bookcase bookshop, Carlisle

1 – Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe is probably one of the more obvious influences on the book, as in many ways My Name is Monster is a reversioning of Robinson Crusoe. It’s the story of a woman who believes she’s the last person left alive on earth – and then she finds a girl. The book echoes Crusoe’s solitude on the desert island, his quest for survival, and his subsequent finding (and enslaving) of Friday.

I’ve always had quite a complicated relationship with Robinson Crusoe, ever since I had to read it during my first year of university. On one hand, it’s a story that occupies such a prominent place in our culture. It’s amazing how many people know the story (or at least the basic elements of it), without having read the book itself.

It’s also amazing how many of those people think they’ve read the book, even when they actually haven’t. And understandably – on both counts. There are numerous retellings of the Crusoe survival story, from The Martian to Castaway to Bear Grylls, so it makes sense that we think we know it. But the book itself is actually pretty heavy going. There are a lot of pages before Friday even appears (and before the famous ‘footprint in the sand’ moment), largely narrating Crusoe’s religious transformations, or going into very great detail on the mechanics of building a shelter. Despite being a story so many of us think we know, it isn’t exactly a page-turner. At least, not until the pirates show up.

And of course, there’s also the problematic colonial aspect to the book: its positioning of Friday as the enslaved native who Crusoe proceeds to ‘civilise’; Crusoe’s ability to lay claim to the island solely by virtue of his having been washed up there; the problem of his naming of things.

These were all aspects of the book that drew me in, and that made me want to answer it in some way. My Name is Monster is in many ways a reversioning of Robinson Crusoe, but it’s also a response to some of its themes.

bookshelf - Katie Hale

2 – Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

As well as being a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, My Name is Monster is also very heavily influenced by Frankenstein.

Unlike Crusoe, I’ve loved Frankenstein ever since I read it – again during my first year of university. In some ways, the themes of the two classics are quite similar: both deal with one human’s desire to create and control another, and ways of coping with enforced isolation. Both ask who has the power to name a person or a thing.

But whereas Crusoe puts Friday in a position of subservience, Frankenstein presents two individuals with a much more complex creator / created relationship. They are really equal protagonists, and the questions this allows the book to ask are much more complex – questions that have shaped the genre of science fiction ever since, such as to what extent can a created being be considered human?

The question of how much we can truly create another conscious being is one that feeds directly into My Name is Monster – as, of course, does the name ‘Monster’.

Sliding ladders in Topping's Bookshop, St Andrews
Sliding ladders in Topping’s Bookshop, St Andrews

3 – The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Given that My Name is Monster is set in an empty world, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s a post-apocalyptic novel on this list. I first read The Road when I was at secondary school, and it made a huge impression on me.

What I loved about the post-apocalyptic element to the book, was that that wasn’t the story. The story was the man and the boy, and the relationship between them. The post-apocalyptic setting was just the circumstances needed to tell that relationship story. This is something that interests me: the way something huge can have happened / can be happening in the world of the book, but we remain focussed on the central characters, and on the relationship between them.

Of course, The Road is also just a beautiful written book. The prose is so precise that it feels incredibly simple. But, like most things that appear simple, it’s a demonstration of huge writing skill, and an ability to cut away all the details that don’t really matter – something that’s much harder than it sounds in something the size of a novel!

writing prompt - Katie Hale

4 – The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

The most recent book on this list, The Shepherd’s Life, is only a few years old. It’s a non-fiction book about sheep farming on the Cumbrian fells. It’s a sort of love letter to the landscape I’ve grown up in, and to its agriculture.

When I first moved back to Cumbria after university, I was feeling a bit of resentment. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Cumbria (it’s beautiful, for one thing, and there’s a sense of individuals mattering here in a way that sometimes gets lost in cities) – but it was more that I felt like I ought to have gone somewhere else; this was where I started, and being back here felt like I hadn’t moved forward at all. Like a lot of people who move home / near home, I was worried I would revert to the person I was when I last lived here, aged 18.

Reading The Shepherd’s Life helped me fall in love with Cumbria again. Rebanks’ experiences of Cumbria are very different to mine; although I grew up surrounded by farms and fields and sheep, I’m not from a farming family, so I don’t have the same inter-generational relationship with the land. But the book is so connected to the physicality of the landscape that it helped me to feel connected to Cumbria again. I felt I understood the landscape in a way I’d only ever guessed at before – and that fed into the characters’ lifestyles in My Name is Monster.

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

5 – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

Probably like a lot of queer people, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit opened so many doors for me, not just in terms of fiction, but in life as well. Like The Road, I read it while I was at secondary school, and it shaped my understand of who and what could belong in a novel.

But it also influenced my understanding of character – the bold details that can make a character leap off the page, till you feel as though they’re somebody you’ve met – and of the unreliable narrator: something that was compounded when I read Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal several years later.

The nods to history and fairytale and mythology in much of Winterson’s work is something that I often think about – something that also captures me in Ali Smith’s writing. I’m interested in the way in which all of this provides intertextuality, and gives the novel breadth, so that it seems to breathe beyond the confines of it’s 200-ish pages. Like in The Road, the focus remains on the character(s) at the centre of the story, but there’s so much more happening in our peripheral vision.

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My Name is Monster is due from Canongate on 6th June 2019, and is available for pre-order from all good bookshops.

My debut novel, My Name is Monster, hits the shelves in just two and a half weeks, and it’s got me thinking about how there’s something magical – something almost metaphysical – about the creation of a book. How something can go from being the tiniest flicker of an idea, to being a fully fledged novel, a physical thing you can hold in your hands.

Even when it’s your own book, it can still feel like something of a mysterious process.

Did you know you can pre-order My Name is Monster from a lovely independent bookshop?

Every book’s path to publication is different. It can depend on so many factors: the genre of book, the stage of the writer’s career, the agency or particular publisher, the availability of funding or mentoring schemes, how much of a platform the writer has to begin with.

Since The Bookseller announced the acquisition of My Name is Monster by Canongate back in 2018, a few people have asked my advice on various aspects of the publishing process. As a debut novelist, I’m still working some of this stuff out for myself, but it always surprises me to look back and see just how much I’ve learned since all this started. How does it all work? How do you get an agent? How long does it take to get published? What does the writer get offered in a typical contract?

I can’t speak for every book, but I can share my own experiences. How did My Name is Monster go from being nothing more than a thought, to being on the verge of publication in a couple of weeks?

My Name is Monster - editing, by Katie Hale

Let’s start at the very beginning…

Like every story, My Name is Monster started with an idea. Unlike J K Rowling (who famously gave an account of having the idea for Harry Potter while on a train journey), I don’t remember exactly what that first spark of a story was. I do remember that it started with Frankenstein, and the extent to which we can create another human, and that this initial idea was a long long way from the eventual narrative of the book. I’m also pretty sure that it came to me during a service in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, where I used to sing in the choir on Sundays. This dates it to the early part of 2011, probably a few weeks after the National Theatre had broadcast their double productions of Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch & Johnny Lee Miller.

But if that was the birth of the novel, it wasn’t really it’s beginning in any concrete sense. Sure, I played with the idea now and again, when I was feeling carsick or bored on the bus, but it was just fantasy really. (Then again, aren’t all stories?) It was just a story I told myself from time to time – albeit one that developed in my head with each retelling.

Back then, I didn’t think of myself as a novelist at all. I was a poet, and I had this feeling that if I wanted to remain a poet, I ought not to focus on anything else. I’d put myself in my little poetry box, and I think as much as anything, I was afraid to come out.

My Writing Life: February - Katie Hale, Cumbrian writer
WriteNow insight day with Penguin Random House

WriteNow:

Fast-forward to August 2016. I was in Oregon, having just finished an epic West Coast road trip with two friends. In about a week’s time, I would be making my way home, pretty certain that I didn’t have a job to come back to.

Up until the end of 2015, I’d been working two part-time jobs while trying to build my freelance writing work – adding up to around 8 days a week and requiring unsustainable energy levels. Towards the end of 2015, my freelance work was increasing, and it became clear that one of the part-time jobs had to go. Arts funding being what it is, by the time I left for the US, the other one looked on the verge of drying up as well.

In other words, I was panicking slightly and applying for everything.

That was when WriteNow landed in my inbox, flagged up by my editor at Flipped Eye, Jacob Sam-La Rose. WriteNow is a mentoring scheme run by Penguin Random House, for emerging writers from demographics facing barriers to traditional publishing. The first round offered 150 writers a place on one of 3 insight days, with author/agent/publisher panels, and a chance to have a section of your manuscript critiqued by a Penguin Random House editor. The second round offered a year’s mentoring.

The opportunity seemed to good to pass up. There was only one problem: they didn’t accept poetry.

So, two days before the application was due, I sat down and wrote the opening section of the novel. The following day, on the train down to my grandma’s, I wrote the rest of the application. I wasn’t sure whether or not it was any good. Could I write fiction? Who knew? I made a pact with myself: if I got a place on one of the insight days, I would write the rest of the novel.

I never even dreamed that I would make it all the way to the final group – but wonderfully, incredibly, that’s what happened.

I worked on the manuscript with Heinemann editor Tom Avery, whose guidance was invaluable in helping me to navigate the nuts and bolts of the story I was telling – and in giving me the confidence to start thinking of myself as a novelist as well as a poet. During the course of the year, I completed the first draft of the novel, and then another six subsequent drafts. It was also during this year that I signed with my agent: Lucy Luck, and Conville & Walsh.

writing life

Getting an Agent:

For a lot of people, this is the first barrier they face to getting their work published. So few publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts (manuscripts not sent by an agent), that it’s quite rare for writers of fiction and non-fiction not to have an agent – though of course there are exceptions to every rule.

I was lucky. The WriteNow scheme meant that Tom put me in touch with a number of fantastic agents – one of whom was Lucy. She read my manuscript, liked my work, and agreed to take me on. From my end, it really was that simple – though of course I know that for many people it’s much more difficult than that. Like anything, it helps to be recommended by someone.

I may write a more detailed post at some point in the future about what an agent does for a writer, and why I’ve already found it hugely beneficial, but for now I’ll just say: signing with Lucy was the next step towards My Name is Monster becoming a real live book.

Proof pages of My Name is Monster, by Katie Hale

Acquisitions:

Again, I may go into this in more detail in a future post, but put simply, ‘acquisitions’ is when a publisher buys (or acquires) the right to publish your manuscript.

Because of WriteNow, Penguin Random House had first refusal on whether or not they wanted to publish. Eventually, after a lot of conversations, they decided against it, and so Lucy sent the manuscript out to other editors at other publishers.

After an agonising period of waiting, two publishers came back positive. I had conversations with both editors, and Lucy negotiated with both publishing houses on the offers made, until we had something we were happy with. I chose to sign with Canongate.

There are many reasons I went with Canongate in the end. One of these was financial (like any job, you have to think about the bottom line, and the advance from Canongate would buy me more time to work on a future novel). But it wasn’t the only reason. I really got on with Jo Dingley, my editor – another northerner, who I found I had a lot in common with. I liked the fact that Canongate were based in Edinburgh (much closer and easier to get to than London). I liked the fact that they were a smaller publisher, and independent, but still had enough presence in the publishing world. I liked the books they published – not only in terms of content, but also in terms of design. I liked the care they put into creating books that were also beautiful objects. On a slightly more frivolous note, I liked that they had an office dog.

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

Working with the publisher:

Understandably, a lot of people tend to think that, once a book has been acquired, that’s it. It’s been given the seal of approval and will be available in shops soon after. But that isn’t quite the case.

For me, the turnaround was relatively quick. The book comes out roughly a year after I signed with Canongate. Because of all the editing work through WriteNow, the manuscript was in pretty good shape at the point of signing. I think I only did one edit through with Jo (alright, maybe one and a half), followed by a number of proofreads.

And by ‘a number of proofreads’, I mean ‘absolutely loads of proofreads’. Proofs once the novel has been edited. Then more proofs following typsetting. Then more proofs once the ARC (Advance Reading Copy) is published. And then one final sweep after that.

Somewhere in amongst all that comes the beautiful moment when you see the first designs for the cover. Somewhere else in amongst all that come the terrifying first quotes from other writers, about what they thought of your book.

Most of this excitement came in fits and starts throughout the year. Gradually, though, it all starts to build towards…

Publication day

What happens on publication day? Well, this is the day that the book finally goes on sale in shops – although it is available to pre-order before then.

For me, I’m officially launching the book during the evening on publication day, at my local independent bookshop: Bookends in Carlisle.

My Name is Monster: Book Launch

Cakes and Ale Cafe, Carlisle
Thursday 6th June, 7.30pm
Tickets: £3 (includes £3 off the book)
Cumbrian author Katie Hale will join us in Cakes and Ale Cafe to launch her debut novel My Name Is Monster. She will discuss the story and her writing before taking questions and signing copies.
ORDER TICKETS HERE

And what happens after that? Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

So many times, at book talks and author events, I’ve heard people ask a writer: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I’ve been asked it myself – often by children in school writing workshops. And it makes sense as a question; we’re so often fascinated by the workings of other people’s minds, and by the creation of something out of nothing.

But the thing is, it’s kind of a difficult question to answer. A lot of the time, our ideas seem to appear to us from nowhere, from the mysterious depths of the unconscious. Call it inspiration. Call it a synaptic glitch. Call it the creative brain working overtime while all you appear to be doing is washing the dishes. However you see it, it’s certainly difficult to pin down, and many writers don’t really have a clue where that initial spark of an idea actually comes from.

Which is great if you’re a writer and enjoy maintaining an air of mystery – but rubbish if you’re stuck for story ideas and just want somewhere reliable to find one.

Writers’ block and what to do about it

Well here are five prompts for seeking out an idea. Unlike some of my previous prompts, these ones are actually sequential – so they lead on from one another. The idea being that, at the end, you’ll have enough of an idea to get you writing a new story. It may work for you. It may not. Either way, practice makes perfect!

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1 – Go somewhere you’ve never been before

‘Once a year, go somewhere you’ve never been before.’ – Dalai Lama

Most of the time, when you see this quotation online, it’s superimposed against a backdrop of palm trees or world maps or aeroplanes. But going somewhere new doesn’t have to mean travelling to another continent. It can be just as interesting (and certainly much cheaper) to explore somewhere new within your own back yard.

It might be a neighbourhood you’ve never visited. A walk you’ve never gone on. A café or pub you’ve wandered past but never actually been inside. Make it somewhere where you can comfortably sit and write for an hour or so, without getting thrown out, or so cold that your fingers no longer work. Then visit it.

As soon as you’re there, start looking around you. Notice everything: the smells, the overriding colour of the place, the feeling of the atmosphere, the sounds – whether they’re in harmony with one another, or whether there’s one particular sound that stands out. Notice how you feel when you’re in this space – not just emotionally, but what is it like to physically occupy a body in this particular space on this particular occasion? Write all of this down. As much as you possibly can. Build a complete picture of your place.

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2 – Who’s There?

This post isn’t just about creating a believable setting. If you’ve spent time on the first prompt, you’ll already have done that. After all, reality exists in the details. Instead, it’s about using place to generate story. So, next, we need to think about character.

Create a character who inhabits your space. If you’re in a café, then maybe your character is the person making the coffees. Maybe it’s the old woman who goes there every afternoon for a cup of tea. Maybe it’s the man who brings his toddler on a Monday afternoon. Maybe it’s the cyclist passing through.

Whoever you choose (and you can base them on an observed person or on somebody totally fictional), make them detailed. Figure out who they are.

If you want, you can start by using some of the more generic character prompts.

5 Fiction Prompts: Getting To Know Your Character

They, once you already have a bit of a sense of who this person is, you can make it specific to this particular setting. What are they doing in the space? Are they familiar with it, or is it their first time there as well? Are they comfortable in this space?

The relationship between the person and the place that you’re describing is going to be key, so don’t be afraid to make it a large part of their character formation. For instance, the old woman who goes there every afternoon might have her eye on the young barista. The cyclist passing through might be suddenly hit with a desire to visit his estranged brother, because the taste of a particular chocolate cake reminds him of a childhood birthday party.

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3 – Look Deeper

You have an idea of who your character is, and how they occupy this space. But what do they want? What’s going to happen?

These two questions are intrinsically linked. Nearly always, what happens in a story is governed by what a character wants, and the barriers that are in place to prevent them getting it. So let’s look at how place can help us with that.

Now you’ve created your written portrait of this place, think about what it represents. For instance, if you’re on a walk that runs next to a train track, there are all sorts of themes that could be sparked by that – themes like industry, progress, moving on, being on the edge of things, forced direction… Then again, if you’re in a bustling café in the centre of town, there’s a very different set of themes in play: socialising, food, consumerism, communication… Or, if you’re at a swimming pool: water (and all the many things that can represent, such as depth and memory and life and purification), being out of your element, children, health and exercise…

This is the hidden level to your place, the aspect of it that speaks to the subconscious, to our story-building brains. And we can use it to help tell story, or even to help prompt it.

First, list as many themes as you can that are connected to your place. Write them down so you can see them. Then, once you have the list, choose the one that most interests you.

Let’s say my place is a café, and I’ve chosen the theme of ‘communication’. And perhaps the character I’ve chosen is that cyclist passing through, who tries the chocolate cake and is reminded of his brother.

For this exercise, what my character wants has to be connected in some way to the theme. So the chocolate cake might spark a desire to communicate with his brother. Maybe their problem has always been an inability to communicate.

(If you want to add another theme, and you feel you can do that without muddying the waters, then go ahead. For instance, their inability to communicate might be based on their different appetites – not necessarily literal, but emotional; their different approaches to consumerism.)

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4 – Through Their Eyes

Now that you know your place, and you’ve gotten to know your character and what they want as well, we’re going to combine the two.

Write another description of the place, but from your character’s point of view.

Remember to keep in mind who your character is, and what they want. What do they notice about the place that you didn’t? Maybe they’ll notice particular people, or the stains on the waitress’s apron, or the way the sunlight sparkles off the teacups. My cyclist with the estranged brother will probably notice families conversing, or the moments of failed communication between others – such as when the waitress gets somebody’s order wrong. Maybe he’ll also notice something symbolic, like the frayed wire on the telephone cord. If he likes the café, then he might also be noticing all the things his brother would dislike about it.

The character’s state of mind, what they want, and how they feel in the place will all govern how they see it.

It might be easier to write this in first person. If it is, then go for it.

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5 – Now What?

Now you have a more complex understanding of your place. You’ve observed it closely. You’ve created a character to inhabit it. You’ve seen it through their eyes.

This is all great, and hugely important work for the scene / story / whatever it is you’re about to write. But so far, nothing’s happened.

So we come back to what our character wants, and what obstacles are in their way to getting it. List them, if you like. Then try putting them in order: what’s the biggest barrier to them getting what they want? What’s the one that they’re going to find hardest to overcome?

This might be connected to the place, or it might be completely separate. For instance, with my cyclist, it could be that he can’t renew communication with his brother because they fought over their mother’s will, and his pride is at stake – or maybe he still thinks his brother is wrong. Then again, it might be a physical barrier connected with the café: he came into the café to get out of the storm, and now so much snow has fallen that it’s impossible to leave.

Of course, you could be really clever and do both: a physical barrier that becomes a metaphor for the psychological barrier underneath.

Once you have your barrier, the only thing remaining is to figure out how your character is going to overcome it – and the extent to which they’ll be successful. This is your plot. Your ‘what happens’.

And so the final task? Write it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing is largely a solitary task. Sometimes, we spend so much time wrapped inside our own brains, that it can be useful to get a nudge from someone else.

This post consists of five prompts for writing fiction. The focus: getting to know your character.

Unless we’re writing something that’s largely biographical, we can’t be expected to fully know and understand our characters the moment we sit down to write anything. The connection between author and character is like any relationship: it grows and develops over time. Every time you write, you get to know them a little better. They become a little more real.

The following prompts are not necessarily intended to become part of a novel – although of course they may do. They’re more like dates, or date ideas. Places to take your character so you can gaze into their eyes and get to know them better.

Bookcase bookshop, Carlisle

1 – Twenty questions

The first prompt is basically the first date. It’s about getting to know your character at a fairly surface level – the sorts of things you might find out about another person if you’d only spent an hour or so getting to know them.

The exact questions you ask are up to you, but don’t make them too heavy. Keep it light, for now. Things like, what’s your favourite colour? Or, what type of food do you hate? Do you have any brothers or sisters? Where do you live? Do you prefer books or films? That sort of thing.

Make a list of twenty questions, imagine you’re sitting your character down in front of you, and jot down the answers. Some these answers might be quite banal, and some may open interesting doors. Either way, you’ll have learned enough that, on the next date, you can start to dig deeper.

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2 – Something your character wears

What we choose to wear says a lot about who we are. Do we dress to impress? Or do we just throw on the first thing we see in the morning. Do we dress carefully, but cultivate a style that looks effortless and unconcerned? Do we spend a lot of money on designer clothes – and if so, is that something we can afford, or something we have to make sacrifices for? Do we take pride in only shopping from charity shops?

If we apply this to a fictional character, it very quickly becomes about more than just surface dressing. A character who spends a lot of time cultivating an eclectic style probably cares a lot what other people think of them, and wants to be seen as individual and independent. Dig a little deeper, and this might arise from a deep insecurity and a fear of being overlooked. A character who puts very little thought into their appearance may be extremely self-confident, and totally unconcerned by what other people think of them. Then again, they may in fact be so isolated that they believe there’s no point in caring about their appearance, as nobody else will. A character who refuses to buy clothes from charity shops may have a fear of being seen as poor, or they may be so admiring of their own body that they want only the most exclusive designer clothing to adorn it.

So what does your character wear?

It might help to focus on one particular item, which exemplifies the type of clothing they tend to wear. It could be their favourite item. It could be the thing they wear most often.

Whatever it is, describe it in as much detail as possible. Describe how it fits your character’s body. How do they feel when they wear it? How did they come to own it? How do other people see it? Get to know your character through what they wear.

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3 – An object your character owns

In the same way that we can learn a lot about a person by the things they wear, so we can learn things by the objects they own. Particularly, by the objects they hold dear.

Theoretically, we can learn from the everyday objects, such as what sort of bowls and plates and cups they have. Is it antique bone china? Does everything match? Is it plain white crockery from IKEA? If they’re quite clumsy, then they may own the remnants of multiple sets. If they own everyday crockery, alongside a more expensive set that they only use for certain guests, what does that say about the character and how they relate to those around them?

All of these things tell us something about the character. But I want to dig deeper. If we choose the right object, we can find out key details about who this person is. It’s a cliché perhaps, but clichés are clichés for a reason: what object would this character save from a fire?

It has to be an object (it can’t be a loved one or a pet), but other than that, anything goes. Describe the object. What is it? What is it like? What does it mean to them? If it helps (and it may do), write the scene where they save the object from the fire. How desperate are they to rescue it, and what’s driving that desperation?

Again, this scene doesn’t have to make it into the finished novel. This is just a date.

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4 – Something that happened before they were born

This prompt is all about putting your character in context. Finding out the ingredients that went into the melting pot of their personality. Obviously, a lot of things will have happened before your character was born. What we want is a key event: something that shaped their life, before they even existed.

This could be something straightforward, like their conception – how did their parents meet? Did they know each other well? Was the pregnancy intentional?

Alternatively, it could be something on a more global scale – a political event that shaped the society your character was born into.

Whether it’s something big or small, make it something that affects your character. Something where, had these events been different, your character’s world and probably their personality would have been different too.

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5 – Put your character in a tricky situation

This final prompt builds on the third one, which had your character desperately saving something from a fire. The theory here is much the same: that we discover a lot about what drives a person in times of peril. Of course, that peril doesn’t always have to be the character’s own.

In this prompt, put your character on a bus full of people. A drunk old man is swaying violently and muttering under his breath, when suddenly he collapses. How does your character respond?

The reason I find this prompt useful is that it not only shows you how your character acts in a crisis, but it also gives an insight into how they act among people they don’t know, and how they behave in a crowd. There’s so much to unpack in a scene like this. It’s probably the most intense date you could ask for.

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And those are the five! I hope you find them useful. Good luck, and happy writing!

When I was a small child in the early stages of primary school, we learned about jobs – a slightly tricky concept for a child who has very little understanding of money and absolutely no grasp of what an economy is. But I knew that I loved stories and books, and I loved making up little stories of my own. So when I learned that there were people who wrote the books I loved to read, and that writing books was a type of job, I was overjoyed. While most of my classmates were fighting over being vets and tractor drivers, I came home and proudly announced to my mum that I wanted to be an author.

In true down-to-earth motherly fashion, my mum assured me how proud she was that I’d chosen a career (at the tender age of probably about five), but that if I wanted to be an author, I’d need a ‘proper job’ as well. Writing books, she told me, was something most people did on the side. I’d need to find a way to pay the bills.

For a couple of weeks, I thought about this. At that time I’m not sure I had any idea that some jobs paid more than others, so it was a lot to get my head around.

After much consideration, I came back to my mum: ‘I still want to be an author,’ I told her, ‘but I’ve decided what I want my proper job to be as well.’

My mum was all eagerness and congratulations: ‘That’s wonderful! What do you want to be?’

I grinned from ear to ear, ‘I want to be an actress.’

Bookcase bookshop, Carlisle

As adults, we know that some jobs pay more than others. We also know that some jobs pay enough to live off, whereas others do not. And let’s be honest, writing has always had a pretty bad reputation in terms of salary. You’re either J K Rowling, or you’re stuck in a garret somewhere with no heating and only half a heel of mouldy bread. As far as many people believe, there is no in between.

Not true, of course. There are plenty of authors who make a reasonable living from their craft, without become yacht-owning multi-millionaires. Just as there are plenty of authors who make an ok amount of money, but still need to keep another job to make up the rest. As with most careers, there’s a huge range of income levels, and a lot of that depends on the writer: what they write, their level of output, and what else they do alongside the actual writing to keep the wolf from the door.

In this post, I’m going to talk a bit about different ways to make a living as a writer. I’m then going to unpack this, and (with the help of some pie charts and a couple of line graphs) talk about what this looks like in practice in relation to my own income as a writer.

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Ways to make a living as a writer:

There are many different ways that a writer can make a living. Some of these depend on what you write (for example, poetry can look very different to commercial fiction), and some just on the preferences of the individual writer. Some means of earning an income will be directly related to the writing, and others less so. It’s all about what works for the individual writer.

As I write poetry and fiction, that’s what this post is focusing on. If you write scripts of any kind, or creative non-fiction, your outlets, and therefore your potential income streams, might be slightly different – although many of the following apply across genres.

So how do you earn a living as a writer?

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

1 – From your book:

This is perhaps the most obvious way for a writer to earn money – though many writers probably don’t earn as much from this as you’d think. It’s not uncommon for debut authors to get an advance of £5k, 15% of which goes to the agent. Hardly enough to live on, especially if you’re only publishing a book every few years.

Other ways your book can earn you money are through royalties from book sales (once they exceed what you’ve already been paid in your advance), and through the selling of additional rights, such as film rights or foreign rights. This effort to sell further rights to your book will be done either by the agent or by the publisher, depending on the terms of your contract.

Note: the above applies to fiction / non-fiction. If you’re a poet, you might earn enough for a couple of bottles of wine from selling your book, but I wouldn’t put the deposit on that mansion just yet.

2 – Readings / talks:

Usually once the book is published, an author will do events connected with that book. These could be anything from a reading of a section of the book, to a Q&A about their publication process, to a talk or panel discussion about some theme connected with the work. Often, they’re a combination of aspects of the above.

These opportunities aren’t always paid, but they should be. (See the Society of Authors’ page about where they stand on paying writers for appearances at festivals.) Thankfully, more and more, festivals and organisers seem to be wising up to the fact that this is work, just like any other job, and that authors need paying accordingly.

As you might expect, writers who publish once every few years tend to get more of these talks & readings in the years that they have books published. And, like everything else, certain writers’ work goes in and out of fashion, as do certain ideas. Which means that, while giving talks & readings can be a good way to supplement an income, it isn’t a steady constant.

3 – Workshops / teaching:

Many writers pass on their craft to other writers. This can involve running writing workshops in schools, or for adults – either through festivals, residential writing courses, or self-organised. Many writers also offer mentoring to other aspiring writers (either paid for individually by the mentee, or funded through some sort of arts funding), and / or teach at university level.

However, like any type of teaching, each of these has its own set of skills, which are themselves distinct from the skills you need simply to be a good writer. There are plenty of writers who run workshops because it’s the ‘done thing’, who realise quite quickly that they don’t enjoy it. My advice: if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. Your workshop participants will pick up on your lack of enthusiasm, and you won’t be doing yourself (or your participants) any favours.

On the flip side, if you enjoy running workshops, then go for it! There’s huge benefit to anyone in being taught by a skilled writer who’s passionate about passing on the skills of their trade.

4 – Funding:

I mentioned the F-word. Sorry. But there are a number of different ways to access funding as a writer.

One of these is to do a fully funded PhD – which essentially means you get paid to write for around 3 years (which is normally the length of time a funding body will fund you for a doctorate). These aren’t always easy to come by, and you have to be certain you want to dedicate 3 years of your life to doing a PhD, but if you can get one, it’s a great way to make sure the bills are paid and still have plenty of time to focus on writing / studying some aspect of your writing.

You can also find funding to write from other sources, if you don’t fancy doing a PhD. These include things like the Arts Council’s Developing Your Creative Practice grant, which gives artists up to £10k to focus on developing some aspect of their creative practice, and so far seems to have a roughly 1 in 10 acceptance rate, which isn’t bad. The Society of Authors also gives contingency grants and grants for works in progress.

If you want to run another writing-related project, which isn’t just your own writing, then there are funding bodies you can apply to for that as well, including places such as Arts Council England (or Creative Scotland / Arts Council of Wales / Arts Council of Northern Ireland, depending on where you’re based), the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Fenton Arts Trust, and the Jerwood Foundation, to name just a few. Most of these require your project to work with other people, and have some sort of outreach / public impact. Some can be applied for as an individual, and some require you to work with an organisation.

5 – Commissions:

A commission is when somebody (an organisation or another person) pays you to write something for them. This could be anything, and commissions vary in terms of how prescriptive they are. For instance, some give you quite a bit of free reign to interpret the creative brief, whereas others have a very set idea of what they want you to produce.

6 – Residencies:

As with commissions, writer in residence positions can be extremely varied in what they offer. Because this is a post about earning income, I’m going to leave aside talking about the sort of residency where the writer pays to attend, and focus on the more generous sort – some of which will pay the writer a fee, some will pay transport & a small stipend, and some will just provide the free accommodation and maybe a few meals if you’re lucky. It all depends on the individual residency. Even the residencies that don’t directly pay a fee can be a huge financial benefit though – particularly in winter, when the heating bill can be enormous, and you’re effectively living without having to pay bills.

In the same way, different residencies will require different things from the writer. Some will require very little, and will instead allow the writer to write at their own leisure for the duration (which can be anywhere from a week to several months to even a year). Most require some sort of reading of work-in-progress at the very least, and some require engagement with the local community, either through workshops or school visits or talks.

These sorts of residencies can be quite competitive, particularly for the more lucrative / prestigious ones, but the time to write can be invaluable.

7 – Prizes:

Equally competitive (if not more so) are writing prizes. These can be prizes for anything from a single poem, to a collection of poetry, to a short story, to a full novel. As well as the famous ones like the Man Booker Prize or the Costa Prizes, there are the prizes that unpublished writers can enter. Many of these charge a submission fee, though, so some careful calculations need to be made about how many of these to enter (and which ones) if you’re going to make money rather than lose it. And even then, it definitely isn’t a reliable source of income.

8 – Other writing-related work:

I’ve already sort of mentioned this when I was talking about funding a few points up, but there’s plenty of other work a writer can that’s related to their creative practice, but isn’t just writing. Many writers work as editors, either for publishing presses or for independent magazines. Some also hold other jobs within publishing, or work as reviewers. And you know those prizes I was talking about? Most of those are judged by writers, who are (mostly) paid to do so.

9 – Other arts related work:

And if it isn’t work directly linked to writing, then there are other ways to work in the arts. There are arts organisations, theatres, galleries and museums across the country, all of which need people working in them to make them run. A lot of these also offer part-time jobs, which can be ideal if you want to work part-time, and dedicate the rest of your week to your writing. (I’ve spent the past 6 years working part-time in arts administration, on and off.)

10 – Any other work:

Or, if a writer prefers to keep the artistic section of their brain separate from their other job, then there are plenty of other ways to earn money. I know writers who earn their income working in call centres, clearing tables and pulling pints. As long as it allows them to write, and to pay the big red bills when they come through the letterbox.

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Ok – so what does all of this look like in real life?

The term for this type of living seems to be ‘portfolio career’ – which sounds much more impressive than saying I do ‘bits and bobs’. More accurate, too, because I often find that the various aspects of my career inform one another. For instance, experiences in the workshops sometimes feed into my own writing, and connections made through my arts administration roles have led to commission opportunities and appearances at festivals.

So how did I earn my income last year?

I’ve broken my income down into sections: earnings from commissions; earnings from running workshops (for young people and for adults); income from competition wins; earnings from readings / talks etc; money from my advance on my novel; income from other arts-related work (mostly, but not limited to, arts administration roles).

For 2018, the proportions are as follows:

As becomes clear very quickly from looking at this pie chart, over half of my income last year came from the advance from my novel. That makes sense. Depending on your publisher, an advance is usually paid in 3 or 4 installments. Mine is paid in 3, and because of various things to do with timings, I just so happened to get the first 2 installments in consecutive months last year. But, as I mentioned earlier, unless you’re publishing a book a year, you’re not going to get regular advance payments, which makes this year a slightly special one – and means that 2018’s income is highly skewed because of it.

(Since advances are usually negligible to non-existent for poetry, this is more of a feature of income streams for novelists and non-fiction writers.)

So let’s take that advance out of the equation, to try to get a more useful sense of proportions:

What we’re left with is a much more honest illustration of this type of portfolio career: just under half coming from workshops; around a third from other arts-related work; a reasonable chunk from commissions; and a smattering from competitions and readings.

CAVEAT: These proportions are specific not only to my career, but to this very particular year of my career. For example, the 2% for readings / talks is because I only appeared at one festival in 2018. This isn’t particularly surprising, when you think that the only book I had out was my pamphlet, which had come out the previous year (and I’d already done quite a number of events for it in 2017. If I do another pie chart at the end of 2019, when I have a poetry chapbook and a novel coming out, it’ll probably have different proportions here.

(Not included in these figures is the grant I received from the Arts Council’s Developing Your Creative Practice fund, as all of the work that will pay for is happening this year, and so I haven’t yet allowed myself to treat it as income.)

So how does this variation play out throughout the year? If a writer’s earnings can vary so much from one year to the next, what do they look like from month to month?

Again, these levels are skewed because of the novel advance. If you compare this graph to the first pie chart, we can see that I received 63% of my 2018 income in two consecutive months. But, as I said, this is kind of an anomaly – at least for me.

If we show the monthly income without including the advance, those August and September plot points look a little less drastic – though hopefully the varying of levels of income throughout the year is still apparent:

Even without the anomalous skew of the advance affecting the shape of the graph, April was a tough month. If every month was an April, then I’d definitely have had my electricity cut off by now. But then, April in 2018 contained Easter, along with all its attendant bank holidays, not to mention the school holidays. So suddenly this dip starts to make a lot of sense.

But if we look at the overall picture of the graph, rather than just month-by-month, my income has (generally speaking) improved as the year has progressed. Certainly I earned more in the second part of the year than I did in the first. I’m attributing this to the general progression that my career has undergone this year, rather than to some sort of shift in availability of work in the earlier to the later months.

But whatever the reason, it certainly shows that a writer’s income is far from reliable. It’s sporadic to say the least, and generally requires not only a willingness to juggle a portfolio of different income streams, but an ability to save for the leaner times as well.

 

‘Yes, but what do you actually do all day?’

I keep hearing this from people, most of whom probably imagine that I spend my days loafing about in an oversized white shirt, drinking coffee and penning the occasional deep & meaningful couplet. While this isn’t 100% incorrect (at least, I do spend most of the day drinking coffee), there’s actually a lot more to writing, and to being a writer.

I’m going to separate those two things out here, because so often they get lumped together, and in my opinion, they’re actually slightly different things. There’s writing. Then there’s being a writer.

So what’s the difference?

Well, writing is the act of sitting at the computer or notebook or even vintage typewriter, and forcing yourself to get those words on the page. Being a writer is all the other stuff that comes along with that, so that your work doesn’t just stay on that computer or typewriter or foolscap paper.

A lot of people who are starting out, who dream of being the next J K Rowling, tend to wish they could skip the ‘writing’ stage and get straight to ‘being a writer’ – though this is often because they believe the oversized-white-shirt-wearing, coffee-drinking, inspirational-loafing myth. The writers who know what’s really involved are the ones who want to push aside all the ‘being a writer’ stuff and get back to the more wholesome business of ‘writing’.

the writing desk - February 2018

So what does ‘being a writer’ really involve?

The 3 main things a writer needs to do (the ‘essential skills’ on the job description, if you like) are:

Write:

This goes without saying, I suppose, but it’s important to remember that you can’t be a writer if you don’t write anything. It’s all very well owning a rack of flouncy white shirts and a feather quill, but it’s the words on the page that are at the forefront of the job. They’re your product.

Imagine a biscuit factory. It’s got a killer marketing campaign, a red-hot accounts department, wonderful managerial staff… In fact, everything it does is first class. Except it never makes any biscuits. Well, no, not quite never. I mean, it made a biscuit once. Or rather, it mixed up the cookie dough, but then never got round to baking it. But still, it loves to talk at parties about how it’s a really really great biscuit factory.

It just doesn’t work, does it? If the biscuit factory doesn’t make biscuits, then it has no product, and nothing else really matters. (If talking about poetry / fiction / any other form of writing as a ‘product’ offends you, then I’m sorry. But this post is about the business of being a writer, and any business needs a product, no matter how soulful and erudite that product may be.)

Read:

Following closely behind writing is reading. Though really, I should say that reading comes before writing, rather than after it. Because the reading, as I’m sure we all know, informs the writing. To continue the biscuit factory metaphor: you need to have tasted biscuits before to know what they’re supposed to look like; you need to have seen a biscuit recipe to know what normally goes into them; you need to know what other biscuit factories are making if you want to make something that’s truly your own.

I’ll admit that reading is often the first thing to be sacrificed when I’m struggling for time – something I’m really determined to work on this year. But it’s amazing how many people think they can skip over the reading bit. I was once chatting to a guy before a poetry open mic night, and during the conversation I asked him who his favourite poets were. With a look of greatest derision, he replied that he didn’t read poetry, because it would cramp his writing style and he wanted to remain individual. Needless to say, his poetry was not individual, but instead was universally bad. (This was also the guy who, later that evening, told me my poetry was ‘unfeminine’, and that I should write about ‘nice things like flowers and rabbits instead’ – and then later proceeded to aggressively heckle a poet who was performing a more political piece. But that’s another story.)

Edit:

This is another absolute must for writers: once you’ve read plenty of books, and you’ve written your own creative work (whether it’s a haiku or a 100,000-word novel), you need to edit it. For some reason, this is another step that people sometimes think they can skip, as if the words they first scribble onto the page or bash away on the keyboard are somehow divine and Must. Not. Be. Tampered. With.

I don’t know whether this is because we’re lazy, and once we’ve written ‘The End’ we just want it to be over. Maybe we’re all just too eager to move onto the next thing. Or perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves into believing in the sacred moment of inspiration as some sort of untouchable perfect truth. Whatever reason, it’s almost always completely and utterly wrong. The work needs editing. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and a piece of writing needs to be crafted.

This doesn’t just mean checking for spelling and punctuation errors, either. It means rewriting. It means reworking, as if the poem/story/whatever is a piece of clay and you have to mould it into the shape it ought to fit. Sometimes it’s like a house that needs tearing down and building back up again, with the same bricks all present, but just a different architecture. Editing is a skill in and of itself – and it doesn’t stop once you hand in the manuscript to your agent / editor and get it accepted. The editing goes on and on, usually for months.

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I bought some fancy coloured gel pens for editing

These are my three absolute essentials to being a writer. The ‘necessary skills’ on the job description. The rest of it sort of depends on what sort of writer you want to be, and how you want to run your business. But here are a few common ‘desirable skills’, which can definitely help you on your way to being a writer:

Emails: Ok, I know it’s obvious, and I know it isn’t particular to writers. But it’s worth mentioning, if only because it takes up so much blooming time. Whatever business you’re running, dealing with emails is an important and time-consuming aspect of the job. It’s just the world we currently live in. And being a writer is no different.

Submissions: If you want people to read your work, you’re going to have to make some sort of effort to get it out there. Of course, one method of doing this is going down the self-publishing route, but I’m going to leave that to one side for this post – partly because it isn’t my field of expertise, but mainly because once you’re self-publishing, you’re not just being a writer: you’re also being an editor, a copyeditor, a proofreader, a designer, a marketing person, a sales rep, and a whole host of other things besides. So looking at the more traditional route: submitting your work. This can be as big and momentous as submitting a novel to agents, or as frequent as submitting poems to journals or competitions. Either way, the skill set is the same: research your options and opportunities; tailor your submission to the recipient; create some sort of system so you know which pieces you’ve sent to whom, and when; try not to get too disheartened if / when it comes back as a no.

Applications: In the next column over to submissions is applications. This is about looking for those other opportunities for you as a writer, which you can apply to – such as funding opportunities, residencies, and any freelance work that might be up your street. (Rather than submitting your new type of biscuit to a ‘biscuit of the year’ competition, you’re looking for a council grant to help you build that new wing of the biscuit factory. That sort of thing.) There’s no rule that says you have to do this, but if you get a grant to buy you time to write, then that’s got to be a good thing. After all, if you’re thinking of your writing as a business, then you need to find a way to make that business pay. (I’ll talk about other ways to earn a living from writing in another post.) But warning: depending on the application, these can be incredibly time-consuming, which means lots of time writing applications, less time writing the real creative stuff.

Marketing: Again, there’s no rule that says you have to do this as a writer, but more and more, it’s expected that writers will assist in marketing their own book. As well as the book, however, writers often find they have to market themselves as people. Luckily, there’s no set way of marketing yourself, or your book, which largely means you can tailor it to what you feel comfortable doing. If you love making YouTube videos, then great, you can start a book vlog. If you hate the idea of filming yourself, but you’d love to go out and run events in local bookshops, then that’s also great.

Blogging & social media: This is probably really a part of the ‘marketing’ point above, but it’s such a major thing that I think it deserves its own subheading. Often with these things, you’re not marketing a specific book (or one particular type of biscuit), but you’re marketing yourself as a whole brand. And you’re doing this not by shouting into the twitter-void in the hope that someone somewhere will hear your echoes. You’re doing this by connecting with people: with your readership, with fellow writers, with other people in the literary industry. All too often I see writers tweeting things like ‘Buy my book!’ followed by a link and 9-10 hashtags. Once or twice this is fine, but when this is the only thing a writer ever seems to tweet, then you have to question why you’re following that person. After all, if you had a choice between eavesdropping on, or even engaging in, an interesting conversation, or standing beside the man in the sandwichboard continuously yelling about some promotion or other, I can guess which one you’re most likely to pick.

Talks / Panels / Readings: Again, the days where writers wrote a book, came out for a signing or two the week it was published, then returned to their garret to work on the sequel are long gone. It’s very common for writers to give readings of their work, or to be expected to talk on subjects related to their book – either individually or as part of a panel discussion. This isn’t just a case of showing up and rattling something off, either. Like anything else, all these appearances require preparation. The ability to prepare for these, and then to perform well in them, is another skill in the writer’s job description.

Writing (again): As well as working on your own creative projects, as a writer you might also be expected to write articles and commissioned pieces. This is much in the same vein as giving talks or appearing on panels, except that it’s written down and published, instead of spoken live.

Workshops / Teaching / Project Management: And lastly, there are all the ways that a writer can make money, which are indirectly related to writing, but not writing itself. Many writers teach, or run workshops, or mentor other writers. Or they manage writing-related projects, or work for literature-based organisations. All these things have their own job descriptions, but I wanted to make a nod to them here, just to illustrate the sheer variety of skills required to ‘be a writer’, beyond just the skill of ‘writing.

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Good luck – and keep writing!

It’s that time again – the time for looking back at the year gone by and wondering where the time went. Though for once, this year doesn’t feel like it’s rushed by me in a blink and a blur. For once, I can look back and think that 1st January 2018 actually feels like a full year ago. Maybe because so much has changed since then.

I’ve talked a bit about this before, how luck can suddenly change and how validation can come at the drop of a hat, but it’s such a big thing that I want to talk about it again. Because this time last year I wasn’t quite making it as a writer. Don’t get me wrong – I was pleased about how things were going. I’d had some poetry successes in 2017, had taken a show to the Edinburgh Fringe and was several drafts deep into a novel. But it wasn’t financially sustainable. The writing itself was going well, but I was struggling to pay the bills.

And then, along came June: the month that turned it all around. Within the space of a few weeks, I’d received a grant from the Arts Council and Canongate had acquired my novel. And just like that, I could afford to put the heating on. Just like that, my dream of being a completely freelance full-time writer looked financially viable.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising how much of a difference money makes. After all, it’s what drives so many people to get out of bed in the morning, and what stops so many more people from getting to sleep at night. But I don’t think I’d realised quite how much that financial stability meant to me – not least because it means time when I can write, without worrying about how to buy groceries or fill the car with petrol or anything else so quotidien. Instead, I can worry about much more interesting things, like line breaks and plot and structure. Which is exactly the sort of thing I like to be worrying about.

Poetry:

In terms of poetry, 2018 has been a year for residentials, commissions and prizes.

I started the year with a poetry residential in St Ives, which was a week-long retreat at a hotel with four other lovely poets and lots and lots of scones. I then went on my first ever Arvon course in June, which was hugely inspirational, and where I wrote probably more poems than in either the 6 months before or since – before rounding off the year with 4 days at Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel in Grange-over-Sands: 4 workshops with 4 different tutors, and once again buckets full of inspiration.

What was so lovely about each of these occasions was that they gave me time to focus on what the poetry I wanted to write, while also pushing me and my work in new directions. These opportunities were particularly helpful, because most of my other writing this year has been either fiction, or has been commission-driven.

Given that I completed my first ever commission in the second half of 2017, I’ve been pleasantly overwhelmed with the commissions I’ve had this year – which just goes to emphasise how quickly things turn around and take on a positive streak.

It started in January, with a poem for the Barbican Centre‘s Subject to Change project. The poem was called ‘Honey’, and was written in response to an incident that occured on Virgin Trains’ East Coast service at the start of the year. This commission was followed by one from Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, which is still ongoing, and another from the National Trust: as part of their three-year participation project, Tables Turned, I was asked to meet a group of former miners in Whitehaven, and to use their memories of working in the mines to write a creative response through poetry. The result was ‘We’re still here, with luck’, using comments made by the miners interspersed with my own words:

I’ve also been working on a commission from a theatre company, Théâtre Volière, to write a sequence of poems about the history of women in the area around Gretna Green. Théâtre Volière will then collaborate with musicisn Lori Watson to create a theatre piece, Gretna, which will be performed at Ye Olde Mitre in London next March.

And, while we’re on the subject of history, my final commission of 2018 was from BBC Radio Cumbria to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, in response to Carlisle’s Armistice Day celebrations 100 years ago. The lovely people at Carlisle Cathedral were then good enough to let me climb the (very very very steep) stairs to the roof of the bell tower with Radio Cumbria’s Belinda Artingstoll to film it.

I also had a commission this year to work with Kendal Poetry Festival to create a ‘guerrilla poetry‘ project – except that, being me, I sort of got a bit carried away with it, and instead of creating one guerrilla poetry project, ended up creating three. These were a River of Poems, which wound alongside the Kent from the weekend before the festival, a series of pop-up performances at the Brewery Arts Centre‘s community open day at the end of August, and a whole great sack of Festival Survival Kits, which were distributed during the festival itself. All three projects featured poems by member of Brewery Poets and members of Dove Cottage Young Poets.

And while we’re on the subject of festivals, this year I achieved a long-term goal and performed at StAnza Poetry Festival. For those who don’t know, StAnza is a lovely festival that takes place every March, and I’ve been desperate to read there ever since I was doing my MLitt at St Andrews in 2012/13. This year, I not only got to do a reading, but I also got to perform at the festival launch event (at the same event as Barbara Dickson!) and to appear on a panel at the festival finale. Huge shoutout to StAnza for the opportunities and their support!

And, completing the trilogy of festivals, this year I was also invited to run a poetry workshop at Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle. Borderlines is another festival that I hold close to my heart, as I remember being in a meeting a few years ago when they were talking about plans for the first one, and it’s been hugely exciting to watch it grow, and to keep attending events and workshops there over the years. And even more exciting to be allowed to run one of my own!

Continuing the Cumbrian theme, 2018 also saw the publication of the much-lauded (and rightly so) anthology of contemporary Cumbrian poetry, This Place I Know, published by Handstand Press – which I am very pleased to be a part of.

Kendal Poetry Festival 2018: guerrilla poetry, River of Poems

As well as publication, it’s also been an amazing year for prizes! I’m putting this down to my 2018 resolution, which was to send off 100 submissions / applications during the year. I didn’t quite make the 100 (more on this in a later post), but it did mean an unusually high number of submissions, which happily meant an unusually high number of successes. These have included winning the Buzzwords Poetry Competition, coming second in the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, and being shortlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize. As well as individual poems, I was also delighted (and very surprised) to win the Munster Literature Centre’s Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. As a result, my chapbook, Assembly Instructions, will be published by Southword in Spring 2019, and will be launched at Cork International Poetry Festival. I also found out just recently that I’ve been shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize, which I find out the final results of at the start of February. Fingers crossed!

And rounding off an already-pretty-round year of poetry success, I want to mention the one that marked the start of it all turning around, that took me from being end-of-the-line defeatist to writer-actually-earning-a-living-from-it: the Developing Your Creative Practice grant from Arts Council England. Funding to research and write a collection of poetry, including a research trip to New York, Virginia & Kentucky, which will take place next year. Talk about exciting opportunities!

Editing the novel

Fiction:

Last year, I drafted a novel – something that was as much of a surprise to me as it was to anyone else. As I’ve already talked about in a number of previous posts, this came about because I got a place on Penguin Random House’s WriteNow mentoring scheme. Earlier this year, my time as part of that mentoring scheme came to an end (though not before a lovely meet-up with some of my fellow WriteNow mentees at the Penguin Random House offices on The Strand in a sizzling hot day in April). There was a bit of back and forth for a few months, but over the summer I got the news: that Canongate wanted to publish my book.

As a result, My Name is Monster is coming out in June next year!

A novel about power and “the strength and the danger in a mother’s love”, My Name is Monster centres on a young woman called Monster who believes she is alone in an empty, post-apocalyptic version of Britain. Slowly, piece by piece, she begins to rebuild a life. Until, one day, she finds a girl: another survivor, feral, and ready to be taught all that Monster knows.

The proofs for the novel arrived while I was on holiday in November, and they look beautiful – there’s even some lovely shiny copper foil on the cover. But what got me most is the fact that it also smells like a book: that beautiful new-book smell that speaks of all the possibility hidden between unread pages. June is going to come around so quickly!

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

Other Things:

Fitting with the mix of things this year has brought, I also went back to working in an office for part of the year. For around nine months, I spent a day a week working at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, doing admin in the Youth Arts department. It was so so lovely having colleagues again: people that I see and get to chat to and work with every week. That’s something I can really see myself missing next year.

I also led a series of workshops while I was there, as part of a pilot project working with young LGBTQ+ people in the Kendal area, which was really good fun. As was the young filmmakers’ class I ended up running! And no, I’m not suddenly a filmmaker. It was a self-led group of young people, and I was just there to keep them on track in a support role. The plus side is that I learned a lot about film along the way!

I’ve also run an awful lot of schools workshops this year, in both primary and secondary schools, which have been really fun – particularly the one I ran in QEGS library (which was the scene of my first kiss over a decade ago!) and the one I ran for a group of teachers from different secondary schools, where I got to push them out of their comfort zones and get them to see poetry as play. (That said, most of them didn’t actually take all that much pushing!) Alongside these, I’ve run a fair few Arts Award Discover days in schools, and was also invited to co-run a workshop at the Barbican Centre with friend & fellow-former-Barbican Young Poet Kareem Parkins-Brown.

A bit closer to home, I was a guest on Radio Cumbria’s new Arty Show a couple of months ago, which was a really fun few hours talking all things arty, listening to lots of music and interesting interviews, and eating chocolate biscuits!

Dove Cottage, home of Cumbrian poet William Wordsworth

What Next?

From the look of it so far, 2019 is shaping up to be an even busier year than 2018!

I have my poetry chapbook, Assembly Instructions, coming out in March, and then My Name is Monster coming out just  few months later in June. So there’ll be plenty to do in preparation for both of those, and then of course readings and events around them after the launches themselves.

And speaking of events – I also have Gretna: a theatre piece created in collaboration wtih Théâtre Volière and musician Lori Watson, exploring the borderlands between England and Scotland from the perspective of the women so often written out of its history. Gretna is showing in London in March, for two performances only!

Luckily, there’ll also be plenty of time among all of this for writing, as I have three residencies and a research trip lined up for next year. The first of these is a month-long residency at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. I’ll then be spending another month in Brussels at the other end of the year, with Passa Porta, in conjunction with the National Centre for Writing and the Flemish Literature Fund. And in between the two, I have three weeks at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, which should provide a calm oasis of writing time in the middle of a hectic research trip to New York, Kentucky and Virginia.

So onwards into a brave new year!

The Year in Pictures:

September always feels like a reminder that the world is turning on its axis, that time is moving steadily on, and that the seasons are changing. I’ve dug out my ankle boots from the box under the bed, and rescued the woolly jumpers from their summer storage in the ottoman. And nothing makes time feel swifter than a busy couple of months.

A Few Good Things:

The main news this month is this: that in 2019, my debut novel will be published by Canongate.

This is something I’ve known about for a while, but have had to keep quiet till the official announcement was made. And a note from experience: it’s incredibly difficult not to shout about something like this from the rooftops straight away. But luckily, it’s all out in the open now, so I can celebrate to my heart’s content.

A novel about power and “the strength and the danger in a mother’s love”, My Name is Monster centres on a young woman called Monster who believes she is alone in an empty, post-apocalyptic version of Britain. Slowly, piece by piece, she begins to rebuild a life. Until, one day, she finds a girl: another survivor, feral, and ready to be taught all that Monster knows.

– quote taken from the article in The Bookseller. You can read the full article here.

The novel comes out next year (Thursday 6th June 2019, to be very precise), in hardback and ebook. So I’ll definitely be planning some sort of celebration for then!

Kendal Poetry Festival 2018: guerrilla poetry, Festival Survival Kits

As well as the novel, it’s also been a busy couple of months for poetry.

A couple of days after handing in the final version of the manuscript of My Name is Monster, I was at Castle Green Hotel in Kendal, distributing mini envelops to a room packed with poets. This was Kendal Poetry Festival. For the festival’s third year, it moved premeses, in order to be able to have space for its growing audiences. I was also asked to introduce something a little…different to the crowd.

Following the success of last year’s Postcard Poems, I created three guerrilla poetry projects for Kendal Poetry Festival 2018: the River of Poems, the Festival Survival Kits, and a day of pop-up performances at the Brewery Arts Centre.

The River of Poems was an installation of contemporary poetry, displayed along the river walk in the centre of Kendal, next to the Waterside Cafe (where the festival’s ‘Opening Doors: Open Mic’ event took place). It was formed of poetry by members of Brewery Poets and Dove Cottage Young Poets, and was in place during the week preceding the festival, as well as during the festival itself.

Also during the festival itself, audience members were given ‘survival kits’. The idea was that the Festival Survival Kits contained everything needed to keep a poet or an audience member going during the festival: some tea & Kendal Mint Cake (for energy), a plaster (just in case), and, of course, poetry.

The poetry contained within the Festival Survival Kits was also the work of members of Brewery Poets and Dove Cottage Young Poets. The kits themselves were sponsored by two Kendal companies: Farrer’s (who provided individually wrapped teabags containining their signature Lakeland Blend) and Romney’s (who provided after-dinner portions of Kendal Mint Cake). During the festival, 300 survival kits were distributed to audience members.

And last but not least, a few members of Brewery Poets also staged a number of ‘impromptu’ pop-up performances at The Brewery Arts Centre on 1st September, as part of their Creative Community Open Day. Highlights included reading to a woman sitting outside the cafe with her dog (the dog was also very appreciative), and our final performance of the day, after which a woman in our unsuspecting audience put up her hand and asked if she could read out one of her poems as well. Which, for me, is what guerrilla poetry is all about: making space for poetry within the everyday.

As if all that wasn’t enough – there was also the festival itself, which was a veritable poetry feast. I quickly lost track of how many events I’d attended over the weekend, and how many poets I’d heard read, whether that was the poets listed in the programme, or the Dove Cottage Young Poets, who provided the ‘warm-up acts’ for the listed poets, and who were equally amazing. And I came away with a stack of books that I’m incredibly excited to eventually put some time aside to get stuck into.

And finally in the poetry-related news… A few weeks ago, I learned that I’d won the Buzzwords Poetry Competition, with a poem inspired by a road trip across America in 2016.

Since my last post, I also learned that I was shortlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize, and highly commended in the Otley Poetry Prize – both with poems that I wrote on an Arvon course back in June.

So needless to say, I’m feeling on a bit of a writing high at the moment! As for October, it’s already lined up to be another busy month, with lots of schools workshops to see me through to half term, a weekend workshop to attend, and a poetry commission to complete. Time to put the kettle on and get writing!

The Months in Submissions:

Back in January, I made a decision: that in 2019, I would make 100 submissions and / or applications. The idea behind this was twofold. The sheer number of applications would hopefully mean that I would at least be successful with one or two of them. As well as this, I wanted to highlight just how many rejections writers face.

Well, I’ve definitely had my fair share of rejections. But I’m not sure that I’ll achieve my goal of 100, as my current tally is 74, which means another 26 to go over the next three months. This isn’t wholly impossible, but the problem (and it’s a good problem to have) is that there are a fair few things that there’s just no point in applying for now, because I wouldn’t be able to fit them in even if I were successful! Which, I suppose, is the real reason behind all this anyway. So that’s a good thing.

With that in mind, here are August & September’s combined submissions statistics:

  • Submissions made: 13
  • Unsuccessful: 6
  • Partially successful: 2
  • Successful: 2

The partial successes were my shortlisting in the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Competition, and the highly commended in the Otley Poetry Prize. One of the (fully) successful submissions was the Buzzwords Open Poetry Competition. The other is under wraps for now…

The Months in Books:

(I’ve been editing and copyediting these past couple of months, so I’m not going to count rereading my own book about fifty thousand times…)

  • He is Mine and I Have No Other, by Rebecca O’Connor
  • Music, Love, Drugs, War, by Geraldine Quigley
  • The Republic of Motherhood, by Liz Berry
  • The Summer of Us, by Cecilia Vinesse
  • Folk, by Zoe Gilbert
  • Once, by Morris Gleitzman

The Months in Pictures:

For some reason, I thought things would quieten down once the Fringe was over. I thought September would be a fairly easy month, where I could focus on redrafting the novel without much distraction.

Wrong, as it turns out – though in the best possible sense.

To begin with there was a month’s worth of admin & emails to catch up with, where I’d spent the whole of August concentrating solely on the Fringe. Turns out that coming home to several hundred emails in your inbox does actually take some time to deal with – and catching up on sleep can be even trickier to fit in. But at least once that was all done, September could really get underway.

Poetry Cairn, Lakes Alive Festival

I’ve had a couple of performances this month, the first of which was Lakes Alive Festival in Kendal. My performance took place in a giant teepee in the afternoon, but in the morning I created a Poetry Cairn. Over the course of a morning, I invited passers-by to talk to me about poetry. What does poetry mean to you? People were then encouraged to write their answer on a stone and add it to the cairn, so that by the end of the morning, we had built a cultural landscape marker of our own, marking people’s relationships to poetry.

I was also thrilled to be part of a second festival this month, hosting an Adult Youth Club event at Rheged, as part of Eden Arts’ C-Art Festival. Based on the idea that you’re never too old to have fun, the event featured music from Ekobirds and poetry from the fantastic Loud Poets collective, as well as a quiz, and tables strewn with crayons & modelling clay.

Katie Hale. Photo - Tom Lloydphoto: Tom Lloyd

And continuing on the poetry theme, this month also brought National Poetry Day. This year for National Poetry Day, BBC Local Radio commissioned 12 poets (one from each region) to write a poem based on a local dialect word. The project was called #FreeTheWord, and was run in partnership with the Oxford English Dictionary.

I was selected to represent Cumbria in the project, and wrote a poem based on the verb ‘to twine’ (meaning ‘to moan’ or ‘to complain). The poem is called ‘Ode to Twining’ and you can read it and watch the video here.

Click here to hear the poems from the other BBC regions.

But September has also been a month of fiction. Despite everything else, I’ve also been working on my novel, which is now at the redrafting stage. I think I expected this stage to be easier than writing the first draft. After all, at least I wouldn’t be confronted with the monolithic blank page. But actually I think it’s harder. There’s more pressure when you’re redrafting. Suddenly it starts to matter whether it’s ‘good enough’, whereas before it was just about building up the word count and getting the bones of the story down on the page. Suddenly, I’m having to try to hold the whole novel in my head at once.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable – which is a good thing, as I was worried I’d be less fired up by the manuscript once I’d written how the story ends. Hopefully, this means I’m doing something right. Penguin Random House seem to think so, so that’s encouraging!

Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle

And speaking of PRH… Last weekend I was invited over to Newcastle, to speak at the next round of WriteNow Live insight days. This is part of the shortlisting process of the second year of WriteNow, and as one of the first year’s mentored writers, PRH asked me to go and talk about my experience of the project so far, and the impact it’s had on me. Mainly, I talked about how being accepted on the scheme, and having someone champion my work, has boosted my confidence, and help me overcome those internal barriers to writing the manuscript in the first place. You can read the whole speech here, if you fancy.

Then suddenly September is over, October has arrived, and it’s well and truly autumn. Guess I’ll just have to spend those chilly autumn days snuggled up inside & working on my manuscript!

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The month in books:

It hasn’t been a bad month for reading, although as always, I wish I could carve out more time for it. Especially now the nights are drawing in; there’s nothing better than curling up by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate and a good book.

  • Urban Myths and Legends (Emma Press anthology)
  • Often I Am Happy, by Jens Christian Grøndahl
  • Russian Roulette, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Good Bones, by Margaret Atwood
  • Imaginary Friends, by Philip Pullman
  • Room, by Emma Donoghue
  • The Power, by Naomi Alderman
  • The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage

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The month in pictures:

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Yesterday, I was invited to Penguin Random House’s WriteNow Live event in Newcastle, to talk to 50 of this year’s selected writers about my experience of the mentoring scheme, and what it’s done for me. So today, I thought I’d share the talk I gave:

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IMG_4519Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle, Katie Hale

Back in February, I was sitting in a room in Manchester on my own WriteNow insight day. Like all of you, I was there because I felt there were barriers to seeing my work in print.

Some of the barriers we face are external. I recently went to see a friend’s performance at the Fringe. It was a one woman spoken word show about coming out, set against the history of the secret queer language, Polari. At the end, an audience member (it may or may not be relevant that he was a middle-aged white male) came up to her and said, ‘It’s good, but it’d be better if you took out the gay bits.’

Again and again, we as writers come face to face with this bizarre attitude that straight white men write stories that are universal, but if you’re a ‘marginalised’ writer, you’re only writing for other people within your own group. These are the kinds of trends in publishing, and the external barriers, that WriteNow is working to overcome, and probably the reason that a lot of us are here today.

But we also face internal barriers, and I’d like to talk a bit about mine.

I nearly didn’t apply to WriteNow. I’d had an idea for a novel in my head for a while, but never had the confidence to do anything about it. I wrote poetry, not fiction. I had this notion that writing prose as well would be somehow wrong – like I’d be jumping outside this little box I’d put myself in, and that wasn’t allowed. I also wasn’t sure it’d be any good.

The night before the deadline, I forced myself to sit down and write the opening section of my novel. The next day, I ended up going to a McDonalds to use the wifi, so that I could submit my application just an hour or two before it was due – not because I was disorganised, but because I didn’t have confidence in my own work even to submit it.

But here’s the thing: it wasn’t just my work I didn’t have confidence in – it was myself. So I put all kinds of barriers in my own way, and came up with all kinds of reasons not to apply: I was a poet, not a novelist. I didn’t have what it took to write a longer piece of work. I didn’t know enough about plot, or character, or dialogue. I wasn’t right for the WriteNow programme. I wasn’t writing anything shocking or revelatory about marginalised subcultures. I didn’t ‘look’ gay.

Skip to a few months later, and I was sitting in a room in Manchester with forty-nine other nervous writers. Somehow, miraculously, I’d made it this far, which meant that somebody at least thought my writing wasn’t terrible – although being a writer, I do have an overactive imagination, and there was a small part of my brain that was cooking up all kinds of administrative errors that meant I’d been invited to the insight day by accident. Not true, obviously. Nobody is here by accident – you’re here because you’ve worked hard for it.

I didn’t eat lunch on my insight day – I was too nervous about my one-to-one, which meant I went into it feeling a bit light-headed. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried, because this was when I first met Tom Avery – who I’m going to name-drop because I think he deserves to be named. In that first meeting, Tom gave me such on-point constructive feedback on my work, that it felt right the moment he said it. Half a year on, Tom has given me feedback on the first draft of my manuscript, and I’m rewriting it ready for our next meeting in November. He’s given me new insight into the story I’m telling, but he’s also given me confidence in my novel. It isn’t just confidence that I can write, it’s confidence that I should write.

Because ultimately, WriteNow is about stories. It isn’t about overcoming diversity in some box-ticking photo-opp way. Penguin Random House is a business, not a charity – and it’s a business that relies on individual voices. Our voices. You guys are all here because of your story. You’re here because you can write.

I guess WriteNow has been like school, in a way. There are the things it sets out to teach us, like what publishers mean by certain terms, and how the process of finding an agent works. Then there’s the hidden curriculum: the things you learn along the way.

So I’d like to finish this talk by sharing some of the things I’ve learned from that hidden curriculum, the little pieces of advice I’ve picked up along the way, and I hope they’re useful to you, too.

  1. Eat lunch today. Editors are not scary people – they’re just people with a passion for stories and good writing, and you’re all here because you’re good writers.
  2. If you have a bio that says you’re an ‘aspiring writer’, take out the word ‘aspiring’. If you’re here today, then you’re already a writer.
  3. Never wait till you ‘know enough’ to write a book. I’ve spoken to enough published writers who still don’t feel they ‘know enough’, and the best way to learn is by practising.
  4. Make friends. Make friends in writing groups at home. Make friends with other people here. These guys are your colleagues, not your competition.
  5. Be loud. Don’t sit in a corner apologising for your manuscript. And if you don’t feel confident, that’s ok, because pretend confidence can be just as effective as the real thing.
  6. Have fun. Writing is a long and lonely process. Editing is even tougher. When the grind of the work is getting you down, remember that drive that made you pick up a pen or open your laptop in the first place.
  7. And last but not least, I want to share a piece of encouragement we give each other on our WriteNow mentees Whatsapp group: Deep breath. Keep writing. You’ve got this.

Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle

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With The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash opening in Edinburgh this week, I’m thinking in dramatic terms at the moment. BUT that doesn’t mean that you have to write drama for this prompt. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t…

This month, it’s all about the detail. It’s about observation and imagination. It’s about exploration on the most minute level.

This month, I’m challenging you to describe the events of a single second.

It’s up to you what happens in that second. It could be nothing much more than you, sitting on the sofa looking out of the window. Or it could be something much more dramatic, like a gunshot or jumping from a diving board.

Whatever moment you choose, try to imagine every single detail of that one action. Think of it like a single second of film.

What is your body doing (or the body of the person in the scene, if it isn’t you). How do the muscles move? What triggers them? Is it a reflex reaction, or the product of long deliberation? Is the action reluctant or keen? Are the limbs heavy, or quick and agile? What’s going through your mind / the character’s mind? It’s surprising how many things a person can think in one second. There are our active thoughts – the things we’re conscious of thinking, that we might narrate in a stream-of-consciousness. Then there are the other more subtle associations. The smell of herbs that half-take us back to that restaurant in Italy; the way the light catches the window, which makes us feel all warm inside. The things we feel without actually thinking them aloud.

Then of course, there’s what’s happening in the rest of the scene. Are the surroundings changing? Is there something happening far away that affects the mood? What happened just before? What’s about to happen next? All these things have an effect on the moment.

So that’s my challenge. Tell the story of a second. The whole story. In a single second.

Good luck!

Five minutes ago it was the end of May. Now it’s nearly the end of July.

When I think about it, it isn’t really suprising that the time’s gone so quickly. After all, it’s been a pretty busy couple of months…

Poetry:

BREAKING THE SURFACE: The main thing in my poetry life is that I’ve launched my pamphlet! Yes, that’s right: I am now the author of a slim volume of poetry which actually has my name on the cover and my poems on the pages in between.

Breaking the Surface officially came out at the end of June, but I sort of jumped the gun on that one, and had the launch on 6th June. Well, I say ‘the launch’ – what I actually mean is the first launch, because I had two.

The first was at Penrith Old Fire Station. I read poems from the pamphlet, alongside two members of Dove Cottage Young Poets, who also performed, and who pretty much stole the show: Hannah Hodgson & Emily Asquith. I say ‘pretty much’ because there was also an open mic, and – more importantly – a buffet. Always a good thing at a poetry event! (Or any event, for that matter…)

The second was in Crosthwaite Village Hall. This was a joint launch with Pauline Yarwood, whose pamphlet, Image Junkie, is published by Wayleave Press.

PRIZES: I’ve also had a lucky couple of months (following on from another lucky couple of month before that). My poem, ‘The Selkie’s Child’, was chosen by Hannah Lowe to win the Ware Poetry Prize. A couple of weeks later, another poem (‘Offcomer’) was shortlisted for the Frogmore Papers Poetry Prize.

Fingers crossed the lucky streak keeps going!

ALSO: As well as prizes & publications, there’ve been quite a few performances. (Alliteration – see what I did there?) Some of these were my own (I had a lovely evening as the guest reader at an open mic night at Cakes & Ale in Carlisle, and a trip to Derby to read for Derby Poetry Group).

Some of the performances, though, were other people’s. In particular, July saw the culmination of a schools project I’ve been working on with New Writing North. This year, I’ve been working with three schools across Cumbria (Barrow Island Primary School, St Bede’s Primary School & Monkwray Junior School), to write poems based on New Writing North’s children’s show, Hey Presto! – which toured libraries at the end of last year. The project culminated in the production of an anthology, called All the Things We Would Pull from a Magic Hat, and performances in Monkwray School and Barrow Library. Seeing the children’s pride in performing their poetry for an audience, and their excitement at having their names in a book, was the perfect end to the project.

Barrow Island Primary School - work with New Writing North and Katie Hale

 

Fiction:

The fiction has been largely in a ‘thought’ phase over the past few weeks. This isn’t a cop-out of saying that I haven’t been working on it. I have. But so much of a writer’s work goes on in the mind, and that’s what’s been happening with the novel.

In June, I went down to London for my first WriteNow mentoring meeting with my editor at Penguin Random House. It was such a rewarding meeting: to have somebody look at the first draft of the novel in its entirety and really examine what was working and what still needed attention. There was a lot of very encouraging positive feedback. There were a couple of sections that I wasn’t sure about, which Tom (my editor) highighted as needing work, so it was good to have that confirmation.

Generally, it’s left me with a lot to mull over, ready to start reworking the existing draft in the next week or so.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on…

The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash - a new musical at Edinburgh Fringe 2017, lyrics by Katie Hale & music by Stephen Hyde

Theatre:

The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash opens at Edinburgh Fringe in ijust a few days time! Which means the past 8 weeks have involved a lot of last-minute edits and adjustments as we work towards opening night.

Something fascinating happens when you give your words over to somebody else to work with. Suddenly, the words cease to be yours. Someone else takes them, rolls them around their mouth and delivers them back to the world in a voice that isn’t yours. It’s the closest I’ve been to becoming Frankenstein, literally bringing another human to life.

But of course, working with other people inevitables means changing things. One of the joys of working with actors is that they inhabit the character fully. Of course, this is something I try to do during the writing process, but I’m trying to juggle multiple characters, multiple storylines, and an overarching plot. Whereas for the actor, they focus on the one character and learn to inhabit their skin. They walk in the character’s shoes. They look through the character’s eyes – which means that they spot things that I don’t.

Hence rewrites and revisions.

The result? Hopefully a more rounded and complete show, with truer, deeper characters. Hopefully a successful run at the Fringe!

Find out more about the show and how to get tickets here.

Or read my interview with Gareth Vile, talking about the show here.

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So all in all, a pretty busy couple of months!

Oh yes, and I also went to Iceland with my friend & fellow writer Jess Rich. (The country, that is – not the frozen food shop.)

Iceland

The months in books:

I haven’t actually read as much as I’d like to these past couple of months – probably because I’ve been so busy writing, travelling, and tying myself up in admin knots. But what I have read has been a good mixture of new works (or at least, new to me) and old favourites.

I’ve particularly enjoyed rereading the Harry Potter series. A few weeks ago, Harry Potter turned 20. So that evening, when I couldn’t sleep, I pulled my tatty, dogeared but very well-read Philosopher’s Stone from the shelf and immersed myself. What fascinated me most was how much more I noticed this time around. I’ve read these books several times; I thought I knew everything they had to offer. But this was the first time I’d read them since starting to write fiction of my own, and suddenly I’d become alive not just to the stories, but to the writing itself. One of the message’s in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel (which I also read recently) is that drawing an object helps you to observe and understand that object; it’s the same with writing. Now that I’ve tried to create my own story, I can observe and understand J K Rowling’s writing process in a completely different light.

  • Confabulations, by John Berger
  • Girl Meets Boy, by Ali Smith
  • The Character of Rain, by Amelia Nothomb
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J K Rowling
  • The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma
  • The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton

The months in pictures:

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After a month of writing very little while travelling around Cambodia & Vietnam, May has been full on. Honestly, since landing at Manchester airport at the end of April, I don’t think I’ve stopped.

Finding time to write in London
Finding time to write in London

After the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize’s award ceremony in Dublin, and the South Downs Poetry Festival weekend residential over the bank holiday weekend, May got into full swing with a couple of days hanging out on London’s Southbank and writing, as well as seeing ‘Consent’ at the National Theatre, and drinking wine with friends (always important).

From there, I headed up to Cambridge for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize award ceremony, held at Girton College. Judged this year by Grevel Lindop & Malcom Guite, the Jane Martin Poetry Prize is awarded annually to a poet under 30, for a group of up to four poems – and this year, I was lucky enough to win it. It was a really fun evening, with the award ceremony taking place in the old library, followed by a delicious formal hall dinner. I spent the night in the college, then headed home the next day.

Which was a good thing, because while I’ve been at home, there have been progressions with all three of my big current projects:

Poetry: This month I wrote a couple of new poems, but more importantly: I proofed my pamphlet. It was an odd (but satisfying) experience, seeing the printer’s proof arrive in my inbox – like spending years growing & nurturing a tree, then coming out of the house one day to find it suddenly in bloom. But that blossom will be turning into something even more substantial this week, as the pamphlet itself finally arrives, ready for the big launch on Friday. Very exciting!

Novel: A huge one this month, as I’ve finally finished the first draft of the novel! Which means that I actually got to the end, with no gaps in the middle which just say ‘write something here’. It may be messy, but it’s still a full complete draft. At that moment, when I plugged my laptop into the printer and pressed ‘print’, I was so excited I actually wriggled – like Christmas Eve when I was a child, and I couldn’t sleep for wriggling. Now, I just need to edit it. (I say ‘just’…) I have my first one-to-one with my wonderful editor on the Penguin Random House WriteNow scheme, Tom, in a couple of weeks, and after that I’ll have a better idea of how to move forward with the manuscript. But still: exciting times!

Musical: I’ve done very little actual work on the musical this month – and what I have done has only been in the past week, as we start to look at shaping this draft up into its ‘finished’ form, ready to workshop it with the cast next month. BUT that doesn’t mean nothing has been happening, because tickets for the musical (called The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash and co-written with composer Stephen Hyde) went on sale! The show runs 2nd – 26th August 2017, at the Edinburgh Fringe, and you can book your tickets nicely in advance here.

And that’s pretty much been my life this month! Lots of writing. Not a lot of sleep. Ah well. Maybe June will be a bit more relaxed…? (I doubt it.)

The month in pictures: