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

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

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

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

Cairngorms

September: A Few Good Things

Contains Strong Language:

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

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

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

Winter Droving film

A top secret project:

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

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

beach

Getting away from it all:

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

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

Thin Places

The Month in Books:

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

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

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

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

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

The Month in Pictures:

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

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

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

What does it mean to write in isolation?

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

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

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

And yet I felt lonely.

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

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

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

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

An avenue of autumnal trees in a Brussels park

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

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

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

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

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

Isolated writing in the time of coronavirus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A 17th Century Guide to Beauty in Virginia

Come,
in the owl-time, in the shy fox-hour, coyotes

still courting the moon, the silver creek
of the Milky Way glinting

above the Rappahannock River
in a fist of flung shillings –

come, dip your face
to the dew, each drop its own

loose change, waiting
to be slipped into the charity box of dawn.

Spend them liberally, soaking your cheeks
in the tears of your not-yet-country –

till, with a great stirring of snuff-dark breath
the sightless eyes of the household

blink awake, and the sun begins again
its daily scouring of the soil beneath tobacco leaves.

All day the plants will stake their hard
aromas to your brow, your unwashed palms.

All day you will catch your tongue
lamenting, reimbursing their murmuring aubade.

*

‘A 17th Century Guide to Beauty in Virginia’ was a finalist in the 2019 PBS/Mslexia Women’s Poetry Competition.

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

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

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

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

USA Road Trip

32 Things To Do Before I’m 30:

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

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

So how did I do, in numerical terms?

28 / 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Go back to basics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Make characters interact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Start a fire.

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

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

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

writing in cafes - notebooks and coffee

4. Skip back a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

You have two options.

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

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

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5. Skip forward.

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

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

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

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

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

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object

At the roof of the Rockies is the watershed
of America, the great divide,

where you can stand astride
the continental split, can gob your spit

(each gene-coded cell of it) one hawk to east
then west – then watch as each

begins its slow
globular journey towards opposing waters:

Pacific – deep, entrenched
and quarrelling fire; Atlantic –

dogged wrecker of ships, beating grey
determination on its coasts.

This is how a body can be pulled
in two directions:

my mother, newborn and uprooted
to a hospital crib,

her parents’ marriage
gone to tectonic drift

and both her grandmothers warm
colliding fronts from either side.

They say this mountain was a man
once, who wished to go on forever

and was granted. A strong
desire phrased badly –

though I too have wished
to be landscape in a foreign age,

to be cribbed in whole forests of life,
to be more than enough,

to undergo
the conflicting tug

of oceans, take heart
from their fierce competitive love.

*

‘An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object’ was longlisted for the 2019 University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Competition, and was first published in the competition anthology, Silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • residencies
  • radio work
  • grant funding

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

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

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

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

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

The main changes from 2018-2019:

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

Income by Month:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also should have packed fewer books.

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

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

How many libraries?

That’s right. Three.

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

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

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

And the other rooms?

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

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

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

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

Let’s not forget the food.

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

8am-9.30am: Breakfast

12-ish: Lunch (delivered to the rooms)

6.30pm: Drinks and gathering in the Drawing Room

7pm: Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

What about the silence?

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

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

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

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

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

The best bits:

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

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

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

There are two walks in the castle grounds.

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

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

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

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

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

Ok then – what did I achieve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any downsides?

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

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

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

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

Would I go back?

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

 

How to apply:

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

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

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

Also read: A Few Thoughts On: Writing Residencies

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

What is a writing residency?

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

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

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

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

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

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

What’s so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things About: Writing on the Move

What’s not so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

The other issue I want to talk about is loneliness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to survive a writing residency:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to watch out for:

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

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

Shared accommodation:

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

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

Application fees:

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

Fee-paying residencies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, so where can I go?

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

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

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

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

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

The New Yorker: Little-Known Writing Residencies

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

Publications:

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

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

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

My Name is Monster: available from all good bookshops!

*

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

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

Read the opening poem from Assembly Instructions here.

Residencies:

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

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

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

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

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

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

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

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

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

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

And speaking of beautiful places…

Arts Council Funding:

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

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

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

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

Radio:

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

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

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

And the rest:

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

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

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

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

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

So what next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

One of my big poetry achievements this year has been to finally have a poem published in Mslexia – something I’ve been trying to do for around a decade. And, as it happened, I ended up with poems in two consecutive isues! Funny how these things work out.

Here’s my poem, ‘Feathers’, which was submitted for the open callout on the theme of ‘journeys’.

Feathers

I don’t know what I’m trying to say
exactly – only that today, commuting the hangdog
length of the river path, I spied
for the first time this season

a flight of silver breaking from the broad
shoulders of the water:

the metal undercarriage
of an office chair, unheeding
of predators, basking in the knowledge of itself,
its wheels uplifted to the weak sun,
a cursive uncurling towards the sky.

I swear I heard it calling reassurance to its young
on the brambled bank, a sudden circular song.
I swear I heard their ruffled hope reply.

*

‘Feathers’ was first published in Mslexia, Issue 83: Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

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

And, sometimes, What do you do all day?

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

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

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

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

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

the writing desk

Morning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afternoon:

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

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

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

And in the evenings?

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

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


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

 

Imagine. Your best friend has just published their eighth novel. It’s nominated for the Man Booker Prize, which they’ve won before. They’re also an award-winning poet with two Forward Prize-winning poems, and a T S Eliot Prize-winning collection. They get flown all over the world and put up in 5* hotels so they can speak their great wisdom at international literary festivals. Their events sell out within minutes, and their signing queue stretches for a mile and a half. Every time you walk past a bookshop, their covers wink at you from the windows. They’re also the nicest person in the world, and have just been nominated as most beautiful writer of all time. They’ve just been nominated for a Nobel Prize. The village book club thinks your books are kind of interesting, but nobody writes quite like your best friend.

Don’t worry, I’m not having an emotional crisis. This best friend is fictional.

But we all know what it’s like to see other people having more success than ourselves. Even the most famous writers know what this is like. It can just be a bit difficult to remember that when you’re wallowing in the depths of your own rejections.

So how do you keep your spirits up, when it feels like everyone around you is way more successful than you are?

the writing desk - February 2018

Redefine your idea of success.

We’re so used to talking about success as the opposite of rejection. Did your poem get rejected from that magazine, or was it successful? I know – I do this as well. In all honesty, I’m going to keep doing it here.

But let’s start reshaping our idea of what ‘rejection’ means. I’ve talked a bit about this before, but rejection doesn’t have to be a negative thing. After all, with every ‘thanks but no thanks’ that comes back, you free up your poem / story / whatever to send it out to a different journal or competition. In some ways, every rejection increases your chance of acceptance somewhere else.

But rejection can also help you grow as a writer. It can sometimes take months for that rejection to come through – months in which you’ve been reading, writing, honing your craft. So when the poem comes back with a ‘no thanks’ letter, it’s a chance to take another look at it, and see whether you could improve it. After all, your poetic eye could easily be sharper than it was a couple of months ago.

Even if you look at your original submission and decide it doesn’t need another edit, it can be useful to make some sort of ritual out of receiving a rejection. For instance, I have a spreadsheet where I document all my submissions. When I get a response, I get to colour in the corresponding box in the spreadsheet. It’s a small thing, but it carries the same sense of satisfaction as crossing something off a list.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

Watch what you submit to.

Quite often we talk about submissions in terms of numbers. I know; I’ve done this as well. Last year, I aimed to submit to 100 things over the course of the year. I didn’t quite make it, but that wasn’t really the point; the point was to force myself to put my work out there, and to submit to things I might not otherwise go for. And it worked – last year was hugely successful in terms of my writing career.

But as an approach, it doesn’t work for everyone. If you find you’re getting down about the number of rejections you’re receiving, or if you’re short on time to submit to things, then absolutely narrow your focus. Submit to fewer things, but make them the ones that really fit your work. Make each submission as good as it can possibly be. Submit to things where you have a higher chance of success (so if you’ve only been writing a couple of months, maybe go for the local poetry competition rather than the National Poetry Prize).

I’m not saying you won’t still get rejections if you do this, but it might decrease the ratio slightly. After all, we’re all human. We all need a confidence boost from time to time.

And speaking of confidence boosts…

Celebrate the little things.

This is particularly important for novelists, but it also applies to other kinds of writers as well.

As a novelist, you tend not to get to submit your novel to people till pretty late on in the game. As in, you’ll usually have written a full first draft, and then edited it as much as you can, maybe have workshopped bits of it with your writing group, and then edited it some more. All this before you start querying it with agents, or sending to presses that accept unsolicited submissions, or whatever route you decide to go down.

This can take years. That’s a long time without a confidence boost. Find smaller milestones.

I recently went to the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing in Haworth, and the excellent Claire Malcolm from New Writing North was there, talking about identifying creative milestones.

I knew what mine was. ‘To finish my second novel,’ I thought smugly.

Reader, I haven’t even started writing my second novel yet. It took me a moment before I realised what a stupidly big milestone that is. It’s like learning to read, and your first milestone being to read Ulysses. It’s too big. There are way too many other steps to get through first.

So I’ve come up with new milestones. They may change along the way, but for now they’re:

  • Start drafting. (I spend a lot of time in the planning & note-making stages of writing, so the day I actually sit down to start drafting the book is an important milestone.)
  • 10,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 20,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 30,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 40,000 words of a rough draft.
  • 50,000 words of a rough draft.
  • Finishing a rough first draft, and writing ‘THE END’ in big smug letters on the last page.
  • Completing a workable second draft.
  • Sending off the manuscript to my agent.

Instead of one big goal, these are the smaller milestones I’m going to celebrate along the way.

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

No really. Actually celebrate.

It’s all very well knowing what your personal goals are, and feeling that small sense of satisfaction when you achieve them, but why not actively celebrate them?

One technique I’ve seen a few writers sharing on twitter is the gift-to-self technique. This involves buying yourself a bunch of treats before you start writing, and wrapping them up with labels on the front, telling you when you get to open them.

For example: at 10k words you get a bar of chocolate. At 40k you might get a new pen. When you finish the first draft it could be a bottle of bubbly.

It’s up to you what these gifts are – whatever you think is going to motivate you. It doesn’t even have to be a physical gift. Maybe you’re going to go for a walk somewhere you love after you’ve reached 30k. Or you’ll booked a spa day for the day after you submit to your agent. (Or send it off for querying – whatever stage you’re at.)

I’m planning to be away for most of my milestones, at writing residencies, so I’m going to have to be a bit creative with my rewards. I might not even plan them in advance – just promise myself that I’ll physically celebrate each milestone when it comes around, in whatever way feels right for wherever I am at the time.

Share your successes.

When you celebrate, you don’t have to celebrate alone. I live on my own. I don’t have someone to announce my news to when they get home from work, and to share a glass of bubbly with. If I want to tell people, sometimes it has to be on social media. Sometimes telling someone else about something is the only way to make it feel real. Being proud of your achievements is not the same as boasting.

I repeat: being proud of your achievements is not the same as boasting.

One of my constant sayings, that sums up a lot of my creative ethos, is that as writers, we’re colleagues, not competitors. We should be proud of one another’s achievements. Congratulate other writers on their successes. Give them the opportunity to congratulate you on yours.

If you want to tweet about it, tweet about it. If you want to share it on facebook, or instagram, or snapchat, do. If you want to put it in big fancy letters on your website, go for it. By all means include it in your bio.

Even aside from wanting to celebrate (which is enough of a reason for sharing on its own), sharing your good news gets you onto the radar of other people in the writing community / book industry / arts world etc. And who knows? It may even lead to future opportunities.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

Celebrate the down times too.

For a long time, I didn’t like talking about success on social media. I thought it made me sound big-headed. ‘Oh, look at me, I’ve had a poem accepted into a magazine, aren’t I clever?’ And sure, there’s definitely a way that constantly talking about your own successes can get on people’s nerves. If all anyone ever hears from you is how well you’ve done, then soon you’re going to feel like that fictional best friend at the start of this post.

But social media (and life in general) is multi-faceted and complex. If we only talk about one thing, it gets boring. So we also use it to share opportunities for other writers, to talk about books we like, to engage with politics.

And we can use it to be honest about our rejections.

(Side note: there are ways of talking about rejection without tweeting ‘X magazine rejected my poem and now I feel bitter about it’, and essentially encouraging all your friends in a pile-on against said magazine. A good start is not to name the publication / organisation / whatever that rejected to. After all, they’ll have their reasons, and naming in this context can often sound a bit like shaming, even if that isn’t the way it’s intended.)

Talking publicly about rejection might feel counter-intuitive. After all, isn’t this just another way of announcing to the world that someone somewhere thought your work wasn’t good enough? But honestly, everyone gets rejections. The most famous writers in the world get rejections. Talking about it is just a way to share the truth about what it’s like to be a writer.

If I see a writer I admire talking about their experiences of being rejected, or struggling to meet a deadline, or finding a scene particularly difficult to write, I actually find it heartening. Not in some cruel schadenfreude way, but in the sense of solidarity. Writing can be incredibly solitary, and it can be good to be reminded that I’m not the only one finding it hard.

This beautiful tricksy obsessive mess called creativity? We’re in it together. Let’s celebrate that.

Eleven years since I left school, and September still feels like back-to-school month. I feel as though I should be out buying new pens and novelty rubbers and things. I guess I did start a new notebook this month, so maybe that counts?

After festival-season in August, September has been a month of quiet work. I quite like months like this from time to time: a chance to get back on top of the admin, and quietly work away at the writing. Not too many events. The odd workshop. A chance to think.

That said, this month hasn’t been entirely without festivals. Last week I went to the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing in Haworth, with three other Cumbrian writers. It was a lovely festival: big enough that there was a really interesting range of speakers, but small enough that it was possible to go to everything. It also felt incredibly honest, with writers, editors, agents and booksellers sharing their experiences in a way that felt generous and encouraging.

One thing I took away from the weekend (other than a horrid cold – I guess that’s what happens when you visit the 19th century?) was to remember all the things I used to know. When you’re starting out as a writer, people will often tell you that you need to practise self-care, that you need to spend time focusing on craft and not to rush, that you need to celebrate smaller milestones along the way. But I’d forgotten a lot of that. My next milestone was ‘finish writing the second novel’. (Side-note: I haven’t even started writing the second novel yet.) That’s too much. A novel’s big; if I don’t get to celebrate success until I’ve finished the thing, then that’s a long time to wait. A person can get pretty down in that time. My decision? To set myself some markers in the interim. When I get to 10k words, for example, I’ll take a moment to be proud of that achievement. It’s about motivation. I may write a blog post about this in the future.

And speaking of successes, I haven’t been taking enough time to celebrate them lately, so here are a few that have happened over the past couple of months:

KSP residency: The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre is in Perth. Perth Australia, that is. And I’ve been invited to be their Emerging Writer in Residency in April 2020. Going to pack my strappy tops and flip flops! (Sorry, singlets & thongs.)

Gladstone’s Library Writer in Residence: Next May, I’m heading over the border into Wales, to spend a month writing at Gladstone’s Library. This is something I’m particularly excited about – partly because I’ve looked at pictures of the library, and it looks like the dream place to sit and draft a novel. But also because I’ve heard glowing recommendations, both for the library itself, and for their scones! Expect me to be significantly larger by next summer…

University of Canberra Poetry Prize longlisting: Another one with an Australian theme – I recently learned that I’ve been longlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize, which is announced at the end of October. Last year I managed to make the shortlist, so keeping my fingers crossed for this year. Either way, though, it’s a huge prize, so just to make the longlist is a fantastic affirmation.

Mslexia: And finally, this month I achieved a decade-long ambition, and got a poem into the most recent issue of Mslexia. It’s always lovely when a publication likes your work enough to print it, but there’s something particularly special about it when it’s a publication you’ve been aiming towards ever since you start to write poetry.

In the interest of balance, I should also say that I’ve received 17 rejections so far this year, out of 22 things I’ve heard back from. It isn’t all cause for celebration – which of course makes it doubly important to celebrate the good news when it does come along.

And, last but not least, the next couple of weeks are your last chance to vote for My Name is Monster in the Edinburgh First Book Award. It’s run on public vote, and voting only takes a moment, so please do click through and support!

The Month in Books:

It’s been a slightly slower reading month than last month. I sometimes find it works like that, at least for me: that reading, like writing, comes in waves. Perhaps that means that next month I’ll read absolutely loads? Still, if you’re only going to read four books in a month, these are a pretty good four to choose:

  • Walt Whitman Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets)
  • The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
  • The Island Child, by Molly Aitken
  • Black Car Burning, by Helen Mort

The Month in Pictures:

Summer’s pretty much over, and the nights are drawing in.

I always find this time of year vaguely comforting. Maybe it’s something to do with getting to light the fire now and again in the evenings, or digging the warm jumpers out of the bottom of the drawer, but I often feel very content on the cusp of autumn. And often very productive, too – possibly because I still associate it with beginnings and the start of a new school year, or because it’s a time when I end up harvesting a lot of vegetables from the garden. Or maybe just because the hectic summer is over and September tends to be a slightly quieter month: one for getting back into a routine before the year rushes too quickly towards its end.

Whatever the reason, I love it.

A Few Good Things:

Edinburgh Book Festival:

Following on from the epic library / bookshop tour of My Name is Monster straight after it came out, I’m now into a more leisurely spattering of book festivals, averaging at around one a month for the rest of the year. I said ‘average’, because this month there were two.

The first was Edinburgh Book Festival: a wonderful festival, which, in its own words, ‘welcomes around 900 authors from over 60 countries in more than 800 events for adults and children each year’. This year, two of those events were mine – or at least, partially mine.

The first was a discussion of My Name is Monster, chaired by novelist Angela Meyer, and followed by a book signing. The second was a special recording of Open Book with Mariella Frostrup, which aired on Radio 4 the following Sunday, and which you can listen to here. The programme was a discussion of what young people are reading and writing – and covered both YA fiction and millennial writers & readers. With such a broad topic, I felt like we barely even scratched the surface – and I don’t think I was the only one on the panel who felt we could have gone on discussing it for hours! (And a couple of us did just that afterwards on the benches in the authors’ area. So you know, if anyone fancies commissioning me to write an opinion piece on it…)

As well as the events, the festival also runs the First Book Award, which is awarded to a debut novel whose author appears at that year’s festival, and which is decided by public vote.

Vote for My Name is Monster here!

Tidelines

August’s other festival was a much smaller affair: Tidelines Festival, in Grange-over-Sands.

A new festival this year, Tidelines is a two-day festival run by Thornleigh Hotel in Grange. I was invited to give a talk about My Name is Monster in the evening, followed by a signing. But I also spent a good chunk of the day there, listening to the other talks and soaking up the atmosphere.

Also at the festival were some of the Dove Cottage Young Poets, running an open mic and busking with typewriter poetry: poetry written quickly on request to anyone willing to make a donation. Matt Sowerby also debuted his incredible one-man poetry show, about young people in politics, climate change, and mental health, which had the entire audience utterly rapt. If you see him performing anywhere near you, go and see it!

Writing

I’ve actually got back to writing this month. After a much-needed post-book tour break, I’ve started writing poetry again. Honestly, I couldn’t not. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true: I felt that itch to write, and I couldn’t ignore it.

Occasionally, I go through phases where I wonder what my life would be like if I weren’t writing – if I just chanelled those energies into something else instead. Blogging, for example, or travelling, or orchestrating arts projects to facilitate other people’s creativity. These are all things I do anyway, but things that I try and force to take second place in my life to writing. For a while, though, I let them come out on top. After all, you can’t write all the time.

A Few Thoughts On: The Writers’ Productivity

In doing this, I got my answer: if I stopped writing altogether, I’d only start again. Either that or be totally unsatisfied all of the time.

What is it that makes me constantly yearn to record things, to interpret them, to think my way through the world by putting pen to paper? I don’t really know – but whatever it is, it’s definitely there. And finally, this month, I gave in to it. And I wrote.

The Month in Books:

I’ve read a lot more this month than I did in July. Partly because I’ve had a lot of free evenings, which I’ve been using to curl up on the sofa and read. I’ve also been snatching those rare sunny moments to sit with a book in the garden – not to mention the train journey up to Edinburgh and back (including a packed out train where the only available seat was on the floor, but never mind).

Surprisingly (at least, to me), I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction this month. I wanted to read books by Patrice Lawrence & William Sutcliffe before appearing on Open Book with them, so that explains three of the YA novels, but I’ve also been rereading Anthony Horowitz (for pure escapism that doesn’t involve a screen) and Philip Pullman (in advance of The Secret Commonwealth coming out soon, not to mention the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials). I love reading YA, because I love the way it can be well written and ‘literary’ without sacrificing story or character, and because of the way it doesn’t pull its punches where you might expect it to. Honestly, it isn’t something I read often enough.

  • Skeleton Key, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Never Say Die, by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin
  • Primers: Volume 4, by Lewis Buxton, Amelia Loulli & Victoria Richards
  • The Gifted, the Talented and Me, by William Sutcliffe
  • Rose, Interrupted, by Patrice Lawrence
  • Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver
  • Until the Flood, by Dael Orlandersmith
  • Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence
  • Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman
  • The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman
  • Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith

The Month in Pictures:

Quite often when I go into schools to run writing workshops, I get the children writing about objects. This is useful because it’s something that can be done at any level of confidence or ability in writing, but also because there’s something about having the subject of your poem physically in front of you that makes matters easier; if you get stuck, you can just look a bit more closely at your object.

Of course, I don’t just give the children an object and then let them get on with it. That would be incredibly uninspiring. Instead, I give them prompts – ways of examining their object that they might not have thought of before. Usually, we spend quite a while just getting ideas down on paper before we actually think about the ‘poemness’ of our writing.

NB: While I usually do this as a poetry exercise in schools, it can just as easily be a prose exercise, helping you to practise your description, or to give particular weight to an object within a story.

Choosing an object:

Ok, so what sort of object can you write about?

The simple answer is, of course: anything. When I go into schools, I have a bag of objects that I take in with me, most of which are mundane artefacts you’d find in pretty much any household. These include:

  • a candle
  • a fork
  • a ladle
  • a glove
  • a scarf
  • a top hat
  • a claw hair clip
  • a clothes peg
  • a shell

There’s nothing dramatic or special about any of these objects. The only meaning they have is the meaning that the poet chooses to give them. In many ways, this makes them the perfect subjects for poetry, as they’re essentially blank canvases.

Then again, you could choose something that isn’t a blank canvas at all: an object that has particular emotional or historic significance for you. A wedding ring. Your grandmother’s spoons. A ticket stub from the concert where you had your first kiss. Choosing an object like this, that already has its own story lurking inside it, could also really work, giving the writing added depth, and a sense of an entier life behind it.

Why not try the exercise twice, once with a significant object, and once with something random you’ve picked up from around the house.

5 ways to write about your object:

*

1 – Physicality

This is perhaps the most obvious way of looking at your object, but this means it’s a good palce to start. Begin by putting your object on the table in front of you, and looking at it. Set a timer, and look at it for a whole minute. Try to notice every detail, as though at the end of the minute, someone is going to take the object away and you’re going to have to conjur it entirely from memory. Think about what colour(s) it is. Does it look hard or soft? Big or small? Comfortable to hold or not? Heavy or light? Think about what shapes make it up. What is it made of? Something natural or man-made, delicate or industrial-looking? Does it look shiny or dull?

Once you’ve looked at it for a good long while, pick it up.

Think about what it feels like, how it sits in your hand. Does it make a sound of its own accord? What about when you tap it against a surface? If it’s safe to do so, see how it smells & even tastes. I’m forever telling children to use all of their senses, but it’s worth remembering that as an adult as well.

This is how your object physically occupies space within the world.

*

2 – Uses & Changes

Once you’ve examined its physical properties, exploring it as an artefact in its own right, you can start to think about it in a social context, and within the context of time.

Think about what the object is used for. Does it have a purpose, or is it merely decorative? If it does have a purpose, does it have just one? Maybe it has a primary and secondary use. Maybe it’s an all-purpose gadget. If it’s an ornament with no particular use, then how does it work decoratively? What makes it a piece of decoration?

Then think about how the object might change. For example, a candle can burn, and it can melt (either from being burned, or from being left in the sun). What causes it to change? How does it look / feel / sound / smell / taste in its new form? Is the change reversible? Is it a desired end (such as with the candle), or a problem (such as a fork that might tarnish / bend out of shape, for instance).

From merely being a physical object existing in the world, the object now has context.

*

3 – What is it?

This is a great poetry game (nicked from Liz Berry) to get children thinking metaphorically, without using offputting grammar words, like ‘simile’ or ‘metaphor’. It’s called: it’s not this, it’s that.

Essentially, you’re trying to get back to your inner child, and to use your imagination. We’re not interested in what the object actually is – we’re interested in what it could be.

So, a candle might be a rocket, or a unicorn’s horn, or a wax crayon, or a skyscraper, or a rolling pin. A top hat might be a steering wheel, or a boat, or a drum.

Don’t be afraid to play with the object. Turn it upside down, or back-to-front. Put it on your head. Look through it. Make it move in some way.

It’s not a scarf, it’s a road leading over the horizon.

It’s not a glove, it’s a spider scuttling across a bedroom floor.

And of course, the richer you can make these metaphors, the better.

*

4 – History

From thinking about the object as a general version of its kind (for instance, a fork like any other fork, or a candle like any other candle), now you’re going to think of it as specific.

Every object has a history. Even a brand new one has been bought from somewhere, or given to you as a gift. It has a life before the present moment. Whether it was on the shelf in a supermarket two days ago, or it’s been passed down through the family for generations, think about where this object has been. What journey has it been on? Whose hands has it passed through? Has it changed at all in that process?

Depending on the object, this could be something deeply personal. If you’re writing about your great grandmother’s wedding ring, for instance, then there’s going to be a lot of family stuff going on there. If you’re writing about that friendship necklace you traded with someone when you were seven, who you haven’t seen since you were twelve, then maybe you’ll end up exploring your childhood through the object.

This is the point where your poem opens out, from thinking about the object itself, to thinking about the world beyond – whether through the lens of your own life or otherwise. It’s often (but not necessarily) the point where the poem gains meaning.

And if you’re struggling to think of a historical journey for your object, think about what it’s made from. What’s the history of those materials? Where did they come from? Are they natural or man-made? What was their existence like before they were turned into this object here in front of you? Go as far back as you want. After all, every wooden spoon started out as a seed.

*

5 – Who Am I?

One last little prompt, to take you in a slightly different direction: give your object consciousness.

You don’t have to give it agency, like the toys in Toy Story – but imagine it’s aware of the world around it. What does it see? What does it remember? (This is another way to approach the ‘history’ prompt.) Specifically as this object, does it feel to be held? To be used for whatever purpose it’s used for? What does your object want?

Try writing about the object in first person. What you may find, is that the poem becomes a kind of self-portrait, from the perspective of an everyday household object. If that’s the case, roll with it. If not, treat it as a useful exercise in exploring perspective within a poem.

And good luck!

*

If you’re looking some ways to expand on these prompts, using the language generated here to create something more, with a rich sound-world, check out Five Poetry Prompts: Generating Material for a Poem.

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:

*

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.

After the post-publication whirlwind of June, July has slowed down a pace – which I’m hugely grateful for. It’s quite fitting that my only blog post July blog post was about writers’ productivity, and the need to take a break. True, I have been doing the odd bit of writing, but most of that has been in-situ descriptions of Cornish beaches, or jotting down thoughts, or just playing around with forms and ideas. The sort of stuff that will probably never be anything finished, but is just a sort of practice. I think of it like practising scales for a musical instrument: not a finished piece, but necessary for honing skill.

So if I haven’t been writing anything fixed, what have I been doing? What does the writing life involve when there’s no fixed writing project?

Port Eliot Festival

Although my crazy 3 weeks of post-publication book events finished at the end of June, I’m still promoting My Name is Monster, at an average of roughly one festival a month. July’s festival was the wonderful Port Eliot, in Cornwall.

As well as my own event (talking alongside Yara Rodrigues Fowler, author of Stubborn Archivist), I got to enjoy the whole weekend of fantastic literary, music & comedy events. Not to mention the most amazing mussels & chips from a stall by the river. Highlights included: Robin Ince’s impression of Brian Cox as Alan Bennett; Antosh Wojcik’s incredibly moving poetry/drum show, How To Keep Time; fellow WriteNow mentee Elizabeth Jane-Burnett talking about The Grassling; Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon; and hearing Patrick Gale talk about his writing process.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, I decided to stay in Cornwall for a few extra days. The idea was to soak up the sunshine and spend some time sitting on the beach reading books. In reality, there was a violent storm the first night and it poured it down the entire next day – which meant I got soaked on my walk into town, and spent most of the day eating Cornish pasties & looking round the shops & museum instead. Neither of which were bad ways to spend the day, obviously.

The second day was a bit more what I’d had in mind: a 5-mile walk along the coast, past Polridmouth Beach (the inspiration for the beach in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca) and along the cliff-tops; followed by an afternoon on Polkerris Beach (snoozing and people-watching as much as reading, really); and a bracing dip in the sea.

Tidelines workshops: ‘the moon’

Speaking of festivals – I’m appearing at Tidelines festival in Grange-over-Sands on 17th August, and in the run-up to this, I ran poetry workshops in two local primary schools: Grange and Cartmel. Tying in the Usborne poetry competition about the moon, and with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, these workshops were moon-themed. As always when I run workshops, I was bowled over by some of the things that the children came up with.

One of the exercises I gave them was to create similes & metaphors for their poems (we did this through games, and through imaginative play). Some of my stand-out favourites were:

  • ‘the moon cold as a frog’s skin’
  • ‘earth spinning like a lazy Susan’
  • Neil Armstrong’s footprint as ‘a maths lesson of parallel lines’

Some of the children will be reading their poems at Tidelines on the morning of the 17th – and I can’t wait to hear them again.

Actively not working

Last but not least, I’ve been actively not working. This goes back to what I was talking about in my previous post, about the need to take a break. Sometimes, the brain just needs a rest. The body, too – particularly after a period of non-stop busy-ness. And let’s be honest, the last time I actually stopped and spent long periods just sitting, and being, and doing very little, was probably sometime before Christmas.

And now?

August is still less hectic than previous months have been, but I’m shifting firmly back into productivity mode. For a start, I’ve got a whole heap of admin to get on top of. Not to mention a dangerously tall pile of books on my bedside table, waiting to be read. Then, of course, I could do with getting back into writing mode – even if it is just doing fragments / little bits of observation that never go anywhere.

And I’m appearing at two festivals in August.

The first I’ve already mentioned, which is Tidelines at Grange-over-Sands on 17th August, where I’ll be talking about My Name is Monster and doing a Q&A.

The second is Edinburgh Book Festival, where I’m doing two events:

AFTER THE APOCALYPSE: an author event, talking about My Name is Monster, on Sunday 18th August, and

OPEN BOOK WITH MARIELLA FROSTRUP: a special edition of BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, alongside Michelle Paver, William Sutcliffe & Patrice Lawrence.

You can also VOTE FOR ME for the Book Festival First Book Award!

The month in books:

As I’ve already mentioned, July has been a slow month in a number of ways – and this has included in terms of books. Only 5 of them this month: four (very) contemporary novels, alongside more of a classic from the 60s – Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which was recommended to me by Julia Armfield and which I thoroughly recommened in turn!

  • Remembered, by Yvonne Battle-Felton
  • Starve Acre, by Andrew Michael Hurley
  • Tentacle, by Rita Indiana
  • Stubborn Archivist, by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
  • The Group, by Mary McCarthy

Here’s to a more productive reading month in August.

The month in pictures:

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

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

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

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

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

Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Under Northern Skies

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

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

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

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

The month in books:

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

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

The month in pictures:

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

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

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

1999

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

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

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

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

 

 

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:

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed me posting photos of a sleek blue chapbook with a bold yellow title. This is my new pamphlet! Hurrah!

Assembly Instructions is published by Southword, after it won the Munster Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. It’s a slim & visually stylish volume (thanks, lovely Southword folks!) about how we put ourselves together, and the formative experiences that make us who we are.

AVAILABLE TO BUY HERE

Although it technically came out a couple of weeks ago (and is available on Amazon here, and will soon be available directly from Southword here), I’ve only just got my hands on them. 

This week, I was invited to Cork International Poetry Festival, to launch the pamphlet at a reading. I read in the Grand Parade library, at a free event alongside two other poets, also launching chapbooks: Brenda Spaight and Regina O’Mulveny. Sometimes, I feel as though pamphlets or chapbooks published by the same press, or discovered through the same competition, can have a sort of homogeneity to them – but it was a lovely event, with a really interesting combination of voices, each of which felt very different to each other. 

In fact, it was a lovely festival overall. I almost want to say that everyone should go and enjoy Cork International Poetry Festival – but then if everyone descended on it, it might lose some of that intimate feel that it currently has. Because although the festival is international (and very much so, pulling an impressive list of participants from Ireland, the U.K., the rest of Europe and beyond), it feels like a small, friendly community. A well-kept secret that everybody is sort of in on. During the three days that I was there, I met some lovely people, and discovered some incredible poetry. What a wonderful festival to be a part of! 

*

I was born in the morning

slithered out of the cut in my mother,
a thing no bigger than a bacon rind

and squalling. There was something
of the nymph about you
, she said later,

a dragonfly lifted too soon from the lake.
She watched my birth

in the sheet-metal ceiling,
her other self a storm cloud

brewing at dusk, a small fire
far too far from the beach.

When my mother unfurled her body,
her arms were scrubbed toufh

and she caught me. All through my life
she has rocked my reflection,

as we head for the unchartered deep.

*

‘I was born in the morning’ is taken from Assembly Instructions. It was first published as part of a group of poems shortlisted for the 2018 Manchester Poetry Prize.

image

I’m sitting in the back corner of Brew Brothers café in Kendal. It’s just after 5pm on a Friday night. Outside, the street is full of people gearing up for a big night out, or trudging home after a difficult week at work – but in here, it’s warm and bright. There’s a mellow buzz of conversation against the backdrop of music: a mix of people meeting up for post-work coffees, or a pre-dinner glass of wine. One or two other people also have laptops. For me, at this moment in time, there’s just the right level of background stimulus to provide a productive atmosphere.

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

I haven’t always written in cafes. When I was a student, I found it next to impossible – too easy to be distracted by what was going on around me. But since then, I’ve started to lean towards it more and more. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe something to do with how our brains change as we get older, or the fact I have exponentially more admin than I did as a student, trying to distract me from the creative stuff. I still do the bulk of my writing sitting at my kitchen table – but when your writing space is the same as your living space, sometimes it can be good to take a break.

The seat I’ve chosen in this cafe is significant. It’s in the corner, with a view of the rest of the café. Separate from everyone else, not overlooked, and yet with a view. The other people with laptops have taken up similar seats.

There’s an evolutionary theory that most humans would plump for these sorts of positions, away from the door but with a view of the rest of the room. Prehistorically, it means we were far enough into the cave to be safe and warm, yet able to see the entrance in case a predator should approach. Calm, yet alert.

Like a lot of evolutionary theory, this is probably largely guesswork, but it imitates the state I tend to occupy when I write, halfway between relaxed and on edge. Or, as X-Men: First Class would have it, ‘somewhere between anger and serenity’.

There’s something about being in a café that provides this carefully balanced feeling. But, as with all balances, it can quickly tip one way or the other. I have to be picky not only with the seat I select, but with the café that it’s in. Somewhere with ambient noise, but not too much of it. Somewhere bustling, but not too full. And above all, somewhere with good coffee and cake.

MY TOP 5 CUMBRIAN CAFES FOR WRITING IN

Of course, there are downsides to writing in cafes as well. One is that you’re always dependent on it not getting too busy. Another is that, really, there’s only so much time you can spend in a café, unless you want to spend your money on buying your lunch and a lot of coffees there. (I mean, it’s probably still cheaper than renting an office space if you’re someone who can’t write at home.)

And for some people, any noise while writing is something of an abhorrence. We all have our different practices. The important thing is finding what works for you, or for this particular project, or even for this particular scene or poem or whatever.

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.

This is one of a number of pieces of advice that I sometimes hand out in creative writing workshops. It comes from the Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules, written by Sister Corita Kent (though often incorrectly attributed to John Cage). It’s a list of ten ‘rules’, which urge the writer/artist to develop a work ethic, and to engage with the world around them.

Finding a place you trust is rule number one.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a café, a pub, your attic, or a park bench. I think the important thing, for me, is that it’s a place that allows for that feeling of intense focus that comes from being both calm and alert simultaneously. And then, once you’ve found it, you have to trust it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few good things:

Frankenstein:

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

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

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

Manchester Poetry Prize shortlisting:

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

Plough Short Poem Prize:

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

The residency month in books:

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

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

The residency month in pictures:

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

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

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

Ready? Got your notebook handy?

Then I’ll begin.

Poetry Cairn, Lakes Alive Festival

1 – Freewrite

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

So what is freewriting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

I bought some fancy coloured gel pens for editing

2 – Phrases Breed Phrases

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

For example:

Even though the dark was coming in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

writing prompt - Katie Hale

3 – Repeat Yourself. Repeat Yourself.

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

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

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

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

*

writing prompt - Katie Hale

4 – A Brave New Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some consonantal sounds that go together:

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

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

*

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5 – Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Let’s not beat about the bush: we live in a time when funding for the arts is getting harder and harder to come by. Libraries are under threat, and creativity is increasingly disappearing from the school curriculum. Having said that, we are also living through an economic boom when it comes to the creative industries. So while on the surface it may feel as though opportunities for writers are few and far between, there are still plenty of opportunities to throw your hat into the ring.

In fact, there are so many opportunities, that last year I aimed to submit 100 applications in a year. I managed 87, which still barely scratched the surface of the opportunities that were available to me.

100 Submissions in a Year: notes on goals and rejection

Of course, most (if not all) of these opportunities are highly competitive. Which means that any writer (no matter how talented, no matter how successful) is going to submit a lot of unsuccessful applications. This isn’t necessarily a comment on the writer’s ability; particularly when judges have a lot of submissions / applications to sift through (literally hundreds or thousands sometimes), all kinds of other factors come into play. What the judge’s individual interests are. What they had for breakfast. Whether they need a wee. What they watched on telly the night before. How recently they argued with their spouse.

Dealing with so-called ‘rejection’

All these things are totally beyond a writer’s control. But does that mean you should stop submitting? Of course not! Because you never know – next time your work might catch the right judge at the perfect moment, and you get a lovely ‘congratulations’ email into your inbox.

So what can I apply for?

The arts world is constantly changing. As I’m sure many of us aware from the doom-and-gloom surrounding arts funding, opportunities and funding streams are disappearing all the time. Then again, new ones are always arriving on the scene as well, to the extent that it can be difficult to keep track of what opportunities are out there.

I’ll write another post sometime about how I manage my submissions, and how I keep track of opportunities I can apply to / applications I’m waiting to hear back on. But for now, I want to focus not so much on the individual opportunities themselves, but on where to look for them.

*

1: Arts Council England

The Arts Council is one of the first places I will look if I’m searching for funding – not just for writing, but for any artform. They have a number of funds you can apply for, but the two main ones are probably their Project Grants (for outward-facing, publicly engaged projects), and their Developing Your Creative Practice Fund (which, as the name suggests, funds artists to develop their creative practice in some way).

Arts Council England (ACE) only funds artists / writers / projects based in England, but there are equivalents if you’re based in other parts of the UK: Creative Scotland / Arts Council of Wales / Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

The Arts Council also runs Arts Jobs and Arts News: a listings service for arts related job offers and industry news. These can be viewed on the Arts Council’s website, or you can sign up to weekly emails and have relevant listings arrive in your inbox on a Sunday afternoon. It’s free, and most England-based arts organisations will list opportunities and jobs on here, so it’s worth signing up to.

As well as providing their own funding streams and listings, the Arts Council has a list of other sources of funding for arts projects. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start if you’re looking for a way to fund a project.

Note: a lot of these funds require you to be an organisation to apply. This doesn’t mean that they’re inaccessible for individual artists / writers, though. It just means that whatever your project is, you have to work with an organisation to bring it into being.

*

2 – Regional writing organisations

As well as funding bodies that cover the larger regions (England / Scotland / Wales / Northern Ireland), there are also dedicated writing organisations that cover sections of the UK. Mine is New Writing North. As the name suggests, New Writing North provide opportunities open to the whole of the north of England, including the Northern Writers’ Awards, which awards hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of funding to writers annually.

As well as funding, they also provide publicity opportunities for writers through schemes such as Read Regional, which gets local authors into regional libraries. They send out a weekly e-news sharing opportunities and news from regional writers.

Google your area to find your own regional writing organisation.

*

3 – The British Council

From local to further afield: the British Council works to keep cultural conversations between the UK and other countries. As such, they often have opportunities for artists (including writers) that involve some kind of overseas travel. Some of these are for arts organisations, or for arts professionals who are not artists in their own right, but they also have callouts for artists, and it’s worth checkout out their Arts Opportunities page from time to time.

*

4 – The Society of Authors

The Society of Authors is the writers’ union. They provide all kinds of support for writers, including grants for work in progress, and their annual prizes for both published and unpublished work.

If you’re a member, you also get all kinds of benefits, including legal advice, support with things like contracts, and money off books.

*

5 – NAWE

NAWE stands for National Association of Writers in Education – but even if you don’t work in education in any way, you can still take advantage of The Writers’ Compass, which brings together NAWE’s professional development programme with the advice, listings and opportunities on their website.

One particularly useful part of this is their Events & Opportunities page, where you can filter opportunities by jobs, funding, events, competitions & submissions, mentoring & coaching, and retreats.

*

6 – BBC Writers’ Room

The BBC Writers’ Room is particularly useful if you’re a script-writer, whether that’s for stage, screen or radio – although they do occasionally post opportunities that are open to all types of writers. Even better news is that their policy is only to post opportunities that are free to enter, so you’ll never have to pay an application fee for one of these.

*

7 – ResArtis

If it’s writing residencies you’re searching for, then you could do a lot worse than starting with ResArtis.

The site lists all kinds of residencies, including the sort that lure you in by saying anyone can apply, but then mention that they come with an extortionate residency fee. In these cases, what you’re getting is often the equivalent of an AirBnB, but with a ‘writing retreat’ label on it that pushes the cost up exponentially, so it pays to be careful.

However, they do also list some very well respected residencies, including those that just provide accommodation and time to write, as well as some that pay you to go and live somewhere and work on your creative art. Because the site lists so many residency opportunities, finding the ones that are most appropriate for you does take some filtering. I’d recommend sitting down one evening with a big glass of wine, and exploring what the site has to offer.

Note: unlike with the BBC Writers’ Room, a lot of opportunities posted on here do require an application fee, which is another reason for making sure you’ve read the fine print.

*

8 – The National Poetry Library website

As you’d expect, this one is really for poets. Mostly, I use their website to keep up to date with poetry competitions and upcoming deadlines. It lists competitions for poets at all stages of their writing development, from smaller competitions that seem to cater for emerging writers, to big ones like the National Poetry Competition. As with any listing service, it requires you to decide for yourself which are the most appropriate for you to enter.

The website also has advice for emerging poets, as well as a round-up of the UK’s major and independent poetry publishers, and a list of magazines where you could send your work.

*

9 – Other listings

As well as the National Poetry Library, there are other places that regularly list competitions and submissions opportunities.

  • Creative Writing Ink has a competitions page, with regularly updated listings. As with the Poetry Library, these competitions vary in terms of size and prestige.
  • Dublin-based writer Angela T Carr posts an extensive list of competition & submission opportunities on her website at the start of each month.
  • The Poetry Society runs a number of their own competitions, which they list on their website. They also have an events listing.
  • If you want a good way of finding journals & magazines that publish your sort of writing, look at the acknowledgments sections in poetry collections & short story collections. If a writer who is stylistically similar in some way has had a piece of work accepted by a journal, then there’s a chance the editor might like your writing as well.

*

10 – Google

I know it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people tell me they hadn’t thought of googling writing opportunities. Every so often, I will spend an evening in front of the fire, googling things like ‘artist in residence opportunities’ or ‘poetry competitions’ or ‘writing residency’, just to search out any of those things that might have slipped through the net of the listings. Sometimes, this will come to nothing, but every so often an opportunity will come to light, which will make it all worth while.

*

Good luck with seeking out those opportunites, and fingers crossed for those emails that start with the word ‘congratulations’!

*

Have I missed anywhere?
If there’s somwhere you go to seek out opportunities,
pop it in the comments below.

 

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

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

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

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

Bookcase bookshop, Carlisle

1 – Twenty questions

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

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

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

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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