I sit at the old wooden desk in front of the picture window. In front of me, the bogland dips down to where a stream runs down along the side of the lane. At the bottom of it, visible as a bright triangle of blue, is the sea.

This is where I sit and write for two weeks in October, as the world russets and yellows towards autumn.

On the edge of the village of Dugort, on Achill Island, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, is Heinrich Böll Cottage. Once belonging to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Heinrich Böll, the cottage offers fortnightly residencies to writers and artists, providing time and space for you to work.

I arrived at the cottage straight off the back of a month’s residency at Gladstone’s Library in Wales in October 2021. This wasn’t the original plan – originally I was supposed to be staying at the cottage in October 2020, but, for obvious reasons, it had to be postponed. I was a bit nervous about whether it would be too intense, attending two residencies one after another like this. After all, a residency is a wonderful opportunity to focus on the work, but that can lead to it feeling a bit like a creative workout; it needs a bit of normality around it to make the intensity work.

I needn’t have worried. The residencies had such different feels to them, that the contrast worked.

(Though, after 18 months at home, six weeks away did still feel like a lot – less in terms of creative intensity, and more in terms of missing friends. And the cat.)

So what is Heinrich Böll Cottage like?

This is a self-catered residency, but luckily, the kitchen is lovely (and has a dishwasher, which is my favourite time-saver). There’s a supermarket about 15-20 minutes’ drive away, in Achill Sound, or, in the other direction, a convenience store about 10 minutes’ drive. There are also a couple of pubs just a short drive away, which is ideal when you’ve spent the whole day writing and don’t want to cook.

The cottage has two bedrooms (a double and a twin), two studies (with desks and views down towards the sea), as well as a painting studio with plenty of natural light. There’s also an outside utility with washing machine and tumble drier – very useful when you’re on the road for six weeks.

There’s a bus that goes right past the front door, which goes into Achill Sound. But the island is so beautiful to explore that I wouldn’t want to do this residency without a car.

So how did I spend my residency?

Achill Island is stunning. I’d never visited the west of Ireland before, and now that I have, I’m already desperate to go back. Purpling peat bogs, towering mountains, golden sand, azure waters, dramatic sea cliffs, and about a million sheep. All of this meant I was determined to do plenty of exploring while I was there.

Over the course of my two weeks on the island, I developed a kind of routine: writing in the morning, then off exploring in the afternoon. Sometimes (often) I then carried on writing in the evening, or else read, or even just had a super early night. (Turns out, all that work and travel can be kind of draining.)

I say writing, but more specifically, I mean editing.

While I was at Gladstone’s Library, I wrote a second draft of the novel. During the weeks on Achill, I did the bulk of the work on the third draft. A lot of this process involved reading aloud (cue that day when I thought I had Covid because I had such a sore throat) – which was a refreshingly weird experience after spending a month working silently in a library.

I tend to edit by hand, on a big printout of the manuscript, which was perfect for avoiding distractions – especially as the cottage doesn’t have wifi (although there is limited 3G at the cottage). I didn’t quite finish the process of typing up all those edits, but once that’s done, I’m planning to take a couple of weeks’ break from the novel. After all, writing two drafts back-to-back like that (especially on back-to-back residencies) is intensive, and distance is always a good way to get perspective on a book.

What do you get / what’s expected of you in return?

Firstly, it’s worth noting that, while I was there as a writer, the residency is also open to other artists. The studio room, for example, has recently been refurbished and additional windows put in, giving it oodles of natural light and making it a perfect space for painting.

So what do you get on the residency?

The main thing is, of course, two weeks in the beautiful Heinrich Böll Cottage. Unlike other residencies I’ve done, you don’t get meals or transport paid for – which means you’re responsible for making your own way to the cottage.

What I did learn while I was there, was that I also got a small stipend to help cover costs (a total of €350 for the fortnight). This is funded by Mayo County Council and the Arts Council of Ireland. I don’t know whether this is something received by every artist in residence, or only in certain years, or certain art forms, or dependent on funding – it isn’t mentioned on the Heinrich Böll Cottage website, so I wouldn’t like to assure anyone of it, only for people to then be disappointed. For me, I planned the residency without it, and then it was a nice bonus while I was away.

What’s expected in return?

Apparently, during non-Covid times, the Association likes to link you up with a school or local arts group, to run some kind of event or workshop during your stay, as a way of giving back to the community. But while I was there, this part of the residency wasn’t happening.

The main expectation, though, is that you use the time and space to work on your artistic practice, whatever that may be. That’s it: just go to the cottage and create.

How do you apply?

The first thing to be aware of is that the Heinrich Böll residency has a long lead-in time. Admittedly, my experience of this was exacerbated by Covid, but even so, I submitted my application for the residency in July 2018. I also have it on good authority that the applications received in this current round are being considered for 2023, so any applications received in the coming year will be for 2024 consideration. As I said: long lead-in.

Personally, though, I like to plan ahead, so I’m a bit of a fan of a longer lead-in for a residency. (I find those residencies where you only find out if you’re successful a month or so before the start incredibly stressful.)

If this works for you as well, then you apply by snail mail, submitting your application (consisting of a recent sample of your work, a short CV and a letter of interest) to:

John McHugh
Achill Heinrich Böll Association
c/o Abha Teangai
Dooagh
Achill Island
Co Mayo
IRELAND

(Information correct at time of writing, but it’s worth checking the website for any change.)

NB: As with Hawthornden residency, the initial application for Henrich Böll Cottage is by post, but communication thereafter is done by email – or, when it comes to arrangements such as collecting the key to the cottage, by phone.

And that’s it! I hope you’ve found this informative – whether you’re thinking of applying yourself, or just here to nosy at what I was up to for a couple of weeks. And if you do decide to apply: best of luck, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you!

The hush of books. The dusty tingle of being surrounded by other people’s thoughts, other people’s ideas. Ornate wooden beams soaring overhead, as the occasional turned page rustles from across the gallery. In the sacred quiet of the library, I sit at my desk and start to write.

Gladstone’s Library is the UK’s only residential library, meaning that you can book to stay in one of the bedrooms, and eat in the restaurant, Food for Thought, and work in the library while you’re here. (Clergy & members of the Society of Authors gete 20% off!) The library also offers bursaries and scholarships, and runs a writer-in-residence programme – which is how I came to spend a month here, working on the second draft of my novel.

I arrived at Gladstone’s Library on 1 September 2021, sixteen months later than originally planned. The reason, of course, being Covid and the mutiple lockdowns and restrictions. For almost eighteen months, the library was closed, and we kept having to renegotiate the dates of my residency – so that by the time I actually made it here, the library had taken on this strange mythical quality, like a mirage, always two steps further on.

And there is something magical about Gladstone’s Library. Something transformative about the Reading Rooms, about the process of climbing the narrow wooden stairs each day, to sit at my desk in the little alcove above the porch, and immerse myself in the world of my second novel.

My first residency after (more or less) 18 months of being at home:

Compared to a lot of people, I haven’t had it bad the past 18 months. I haven’t had to shield, so I have been able to leave the house for things like food shopping and, more recently, outdoor social gathering. I have a garden and my back door pretty much opens onto the fell, so there’s been plenty of opportunity to get out of the house safely. I’ve even been on a couple of holidays around the UK.

But, like most people, I’ve spent the majority of the past 18 months in my own home, in my own (sometimes failing) routine.

The past few weeks have shocked me out of that. The change of scene, the change of company, the knowledge that I only had a specific amount of time – all of this helped me be far more focused and creative than I would have been at home. Not to mention the fact that having set (or loosely set) mealtimes imposed a useful amount of routine on my days at the library.

It reminded me how much I love residencies, and how much a new environment can – for me – help and encourage the creative process.

So what did I achieve?

I started the residency with a first draft of a second novel.

Everyone approaches the drafting process differently, and for me, first drafts are a mess. I don’t write chronologically. I write scenes which I know have to happen, but with only a vague concept of how they might all fit together. I also have a tendancy to change the characters’ histories and motivations halfway through the writing process, or to decide the ending isn’t going in the direction I originally thought, or – as in this case – to totally change the narrative voice from third person past to first person present.

This means that, when I have a ‘finished first draft’, what I actually have is a jumble of scenes and linkages which may be vaguely novel-shaped, but which also may look a bit more like a rubbish heap. The second draft, then, is where the shape and feel of the book really start to emerge. Where I have to try to make it all make sense.

(This is why, often, I dread the second draft. Suddenly, unlike before, the pressure is on for the words to actually make sense.)

While I was planning for the residency, I’d been thinking of my time away as a six-week block: four weeks at Gladstone’s Library, followed by two weeks on a residency in Ireland. In those six weeks, I thought, I should be able to get the bulk of the way through the second draft of my novel.

I also thought this was a pretty tall order. Bear in mind, the first draft took me eight months to write, and it was a total mess. Still, I would give it a go. Even if I didn’t finish the second draft, I reasoned, I would have enough of it done to carry me across the finish line when I got home.

Cut to three and a half weeks later. I’m in my final week of the Gladstone’s residency, and, after twenty-six days of writing in the library, I’ve finished a second draft.

85,000 words + a heck of a lot of coffees, and somehow, the whole second draft is complete.

I’m someone who tends to write a lot of drafts (I know writers who write more, and writers who write fewer – it really depends on the writer). For me, there’ll probably still be structural changes going on into draft three, and maybe even draft four – so there’s still quite a way to go in terms of finishing the actual book. And that’s before I even send it to my agent, and way before an editor gets to see it.

But it’s a solid start – and the residency has meant that I’m much further on than I ever expected to be at this stage.

The practicalities:

The residency consists of residential stay + meals + library use for a calendar month. The library also offers a £100 per week stipend, plus travel expenses from your UK address. In return, the Writer in Residence gives a talk (mine was part of the library’s annual festival, GladFest), leads a full day masterclass, and writes two blog posts during the course of their stay:

Blog post: Rewriting a Novel in the Theatre of Listening

Where do you sleep?

The library is a beautiful building, with one wing dedicated to the Reading Rooms (where the books & desks & archive collections are), a middle section of offices, and another wing dedicated to living: bedrooms, a lounge, the chapel, and the restaurant.

The Writer in Residence bedroom is a double ensuite room – mine was on the second floor, with a little window that I fell in love with at once, looking out on a tree which was filled with birds and, occasionally, squirrels.

There’s also a desk in case you prefer to work in your room – though beyond the occasional Zoom call, I didn’t use this much, preferring to work in the much more atmospheric Reading Rooms instead.

What about the food?

The Writer in Residence position is fully catered, meaning the library provides three meals a day, plus coffees in between if/when necessary.

Breakfast is continental (I maybe ate my body weight in croissants over the course of the month), with options for either lighter or more hearty meals at lunch and dinner (the steak pie is excellent). To begin with, I was worried the food might get a bit samey, eating from the same menu every night, but luckily they varied it up by adding specials, and having features such as Sunday lunctime roast dinner.

I had to limit myself on the desserts, though. Right at the start of the residency, I made a decision to only allow myself pudding on days where my total wordcount reached the next 10k word marker (so, at 10k words, 20k words, 30k words, etc) – which may have also contributed to my productivity during the month!

The best bits:

The best bit of any residency is the time to write. A chance to turn on the out-of-office and dedicate that brain space to the writing.

But there’s something extra special that happens at Gladstone’s. Whether it’s being surrounded by all the books, or the concentrated quiet of other people working, but there’s a magical focus that happens in the library, where the work just flows.

Apply to be Gladstone’s Library Writer in Residence

Also read: A Few Thoughts On: Writing Residencies

Hey there. It’s been a while. Sorry about that – but then, in some ways, it feels as though it’s been no time at all.

Either way, it feels as though time has been doing some pretty strange things over the last year and a half. Always slowing down and then speeding up, trapped between a race and a limbo. And the truth is that for a large chunk of it, at least for me, it hasn’t felt as though very much has been happening. I get up. I make coffee. I play with the neighbour’s cat. I write. I answer emails. I collapse on the sofa. I watch something or other on Netflix. I nod off. I drag myself to bed.

Like a lot of people, I’ve been struggling a lot this year with a feeling of inertia, a fatigue in the bones. Whether that’s just a result of lockdown, or the uncertainty we’ve all been living through for the past year and a half, who knows. The upshot is that everything seems to take longer, which means less going on, which has not only meant less time to post on here, but also feeling like I have less to post about.

Basically, this is just one long big excuse for my absence.

Cue this summer, when evrything changed. Or rather, when everything happened. It’s as though the days got longer and suddenly everyone came out of hibernation. Suddenly, I have news.

A Few Good Things:

I FINISHED A FIRST DRAFT!

At the beginning of this year, I started working on my second novel.

It’s been slow going. The novel which I started to work on early in 2020 proved to be a false start – partly because of Covid. (When the world turns upside down, different stories can start to matter more, and the stories which you thought drove you before can suddenly feel vaccuous and unimportant.) Luckily, I’d had another idea for a novel last March, and was finally able to start work on it in January.

A few weeks ago, I finished a first draft.

Of course, there’s still a long way to go yet. I’ve let the manuscript sit in a drawer for the past couple of weeks, giving it time to rest before I start work on draft two.

I always think the second draft is the hardest. Draft one is just about writing down your ideas. In draft two, you somehow have to make this colossal bundle of words make sense as a story.

But I don’t want to demean the process of writing that initial draft! It’s still an awful lot of words (70,000 words, to be exact), and this year in particular, that process of pulling a story out of thin air has been hard. I think it’s important to celebrate those achievements at every stage of the writing process.

So: first draft accomplished. Draft two, here I come!

AWARDS & PRIZES

At the end of last year, I posted about the sheer volume of rejections that 2020 brought. And, for the first few months of this year, it looked as though 2021 would follow suit. But then summer happened, and turned things around.

The biggest win (and one I’ve been applying for for years) has been a Northern Writers’ Award.

Northern Writers’ Awards are an annual set of awards, grants and prizes, run by New Writing North. This year, I was lucky enough to win a Debut Poetry Award, to work on my first full-length collection. The award comes in the form of a financial grant, alongside mentoring, which I can’t wait to get started on.

And, speaking of poetry, my poem, ‘Snapshot of My Great Great Great Grandmother, Missouri, 1863’ won the Prole Laureate Competition, judged by Carrie Etter, who said this about the poem:

The winning poem, “Snapshot of My Great Great Great Grandmother, Missouri, 1863,” transfixed me every time I read it. I was entranced by the poem’s deft interweaving of American history, motherhood, and the country’s relationship with guns. The speaker’s consciousness is well conceived, the references to God crucial for our sense of the speaker’s consciousness in that time and place. With expertly interwoven narrative threads, a thoughtful use of line and pacing, and poignant observation, this poem deserves more applause than I alone can give. It’s a remarkable, moving poem.

Carrie Etter, Prole

You can read ‘Snapshot of My Great Great Great Grandmother, Missouri, 1863’ here.

But it hasn’t all been about poetry this summer.

At the end of June, I had a short story shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize. And not only that – it went on to win the Georgia Writers’ House Prize, which comes with a week at the Writers’ House in Tbilisi! Still not sure when I’ll be able to take that one up (thanks, Covid), but I was thrilled to be chosen, and am already very excited for whenever it does happen.

The story, ‘Raise, or How to Break Free of the Ground, or The Lakeland Dialect for Slippery is Slape and to Form it in the Mouth Requires an Act of Falling’, will be published in an anthology later this year.

So that’s my very successful summer! Don’t get me wrong – there are still plenty of ‘thanks but no thanks’ responses. But it’s amazing how much difference it makes when you get a couple of ‘yes pleases’.


ROBIN HOOD

For me, one of the markers of summer is seeing The Three Inch Fools perform. An outdoor theatre company, The Three Inch Fools tour the country every summer, with five actors performing two Shakespeare plays (this year, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Romeo and Juliet).

This year, they toured a second play: Robin Hood. This was a more meta, folky, musical take on the well-known story, and I had great fun writing the lyrics for one of the songs (music by Stephen Hyde), sung by Marion (aka Emily Newsome):


So what else have I been up to?

Alongside all this, there’s been a mix of work & play. I’ve run a number of online writing workshops (which will start up again in October), and been one of the tutors on Northern Writers’ Studio’s inaugural Summer School.

Despite saying I was going to put less energy into submissions & applications this year, I’ve also been submitting work and writing applications. Which, yes, is time consuming. The difference this year is that I’m only applying for things that I actively want to do / would benefit my practcice, rather than just because the money’s good. If I’m going to spend hours and hours on an application with limited chance of success, I at least want it to feel somehow worthy.

As for the ‘play’ side of the summer, after very little over the past year, I’ve actually been away from my own house a few times lately. This started with a trip to the Highlands in June, and continued with a self-made writing retreat (where I wrote around 12,000 words in 5 days), then finished up with 3 days walking the Pendle Witches Walk with my friend Loren (in some very witchy weather). After the year of monotony, it’s been good to remind myself that taking a break, and changing the routine, can be so hugely beneficial for creativiy.

So what’s next?

Well, in many ways, that depends on the outcomes of some of these applications. But in the shorter term, there are a few things I know are in the pipeline:

  • Firstly, I have a couple of residencies in the pipeline, which were postponed from last year: Gladstone’s Library in Wales, and Heinrich Boell Cottage in Ireland. I’m going to be using the time at these to work on redrafting the novel, and hopefully to be able to totally immerse myself in it.
  • I’m also very excited to be going back to the poetry collection, with mentoring courtesy of the Northern Writers’ Award.
  • And, in the autumn, I’ll be back to running the online writing workshops, starting with Writing Weather on Saturday 23 October.

The Summer in Pictures:

My Name is Monster is out in paperback today!

Postponed due to Covid and lockdown number 1 (remember those days??), the paperback of my debut novel is finally out in the world.


After the Sickness has killed off her parents, and the bombs have fallen on the last safe cities, Monster emerges from the Arctic vault which has kept her alive. When she washes up on the coast of Scotland, everyone she knows is dead, and she believes she is alone in an empty world.

Slowly, piece by piece, she begins to rebuild a life. Until, one day, she finds a girl: another survivor, feral, and ready to be taught all that Monster knows. But as the lonely days pass, the lessons the girl learns are not always the ones Monster means to teach…


The book is available from Sam Read bookshop in Grasmere (my lovely local independent), and for anyone who orders the book by the end of launch day, you’ll go into a prize draw to win copies of both of my poetry pamphlets as well!

(You can still buy a copy after that, of course, you just won’t be in the prize draw.)


So how am I celebrating?

Well I’m glad you asked. Tonight I’m having an online launch event AND QUIZ, hosted by Will Smith (not that Will Smith, but the one from Sam Read bookshop).

There’ll be readings & chat, and more importantly, PRIZES provided by my publisher, Canongate.

And the best bit? You can join in, too! It would be lovely to see you there.


Find out more about the novel here.

‘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.’

These were the opening sentences of my annual round-up at the end of last year, and I was clearly describing 2019 as the latter. What’s also clear is that 2020 has been, in many ways, the former.

I’ve already written quite a lot about the financial and motivational difficulties of 2020, and about the feeling of stagnation this year. So instead, I want this post to be a celebration of what I have achieved. After all, it hasn’t all been sitting on the sofa & coughing, and part of my reason for writing this blog post is to remind myself of that.

So. Here goes.

A Few Good Things:

ANTARCTICA:

I might not have travelled very far over the past nine months, but before lockdown hit, I was barely at home. And one of these trips was the trip I’ve wanted to do more than any other ever since I was about 12, and the item that’s been at the top of every bucket list I’ve ever created. This year, in March, I went to Antarctica.

The trip was everything I hoped it would be and more, from whales to dolphins to penguins (and more penguins) to seals to skuas to shags (not that kind!) to albatross to icebergs to glaciers to historic whaling stations to snow.

Every account of Antarctica that I’ve read talks about how it’s like another world, how it feels like a totally different experience to anywhere else, and I couldn’t agree more. Things that struck me were the total lack of green (it felt like such a shock landing on South Georgia a few days later, where green was in such lush abundance), the silence, the lack of lights, and the absence of aeroplane trails across the sky (something that’s become all too familiar since then, with Covid-19 lockdowns and cancelled flights). It was an unforgettable trip, and one that’s actually whetted my appetite for polar travel more than satiated it.

HAWTHORNDEN RESIDENCY:

Also before lockdown, in January, I went on a writing residency at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. Of the four residencies I had lined up for this year, Hawthornden is the only one I managed to attend (of the others, two have been postponed, and one is awaiting a decision).

Hawthornden is a medieval castle, where you’re fed and given accommodation for a month, and allowed to spend the entire time working on your own writing. I used the month to work on my poetry collection, and to start planning a novel (which I then put on hold during lockdown, but never mind). It was a wonderful month, and felt like an incredible luxury to have all that time to dedicate to my writing. (More about the residency here.)

BELLA:

As well as writing poetry and fiction, this year I’ve also worked on Bella: an immersive digital performance trail around Penrith.

An Eden Arts projct, Bella is a response to the restrictions on live events caused by Covid-19. When the Winter Droving festival couldn’t happen this year, Eden Arts started to look for other ways to keep the festival spirit alive during 2020. One of the solutions was Bella.

Following the trail is fairly simple. There’s a downloadable map, and you simply scan the QR codes on the bright pink signs in the various locations around Penrith. These each take you to a video, as you follow a vlogger, Bella, on the ‘Winter Droving Heritage Trail’. But is it all as simple as it seems? Or is there something else going on? To find out, you’ll need to solve the clues…

actor looking anxious, while a camera films

Publications:

While the paperback publication of My Name is Monster (originally due June 2020) may have been postponed to January 2021, both the German and Italian language editions went ahead, meaning that Mein Name ist Monster and Il mio nome è Mostro are now out in the world. The books were translated by Eva Kemper and Carla Maggiori, and published by S. Fischer Verlage and Liberilibri respectively.

And, as if that wasn’t enough, this year, My Name is Monster was also shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award – an award for debut science fiction novels, run by Blackwells.

I’ve also had a few poems published this year, including ‘My Mother Visits Neodesha‘ in the online poetry journal bath magg, and ‘Ease‘ as part of Write Where We Are Now: an online collection of poems about the pandemic, created by Carol Ann Duffy and the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Later on in the year, I also had a poem, ‘Mouth Game‘, commended in the Troubadour International Poetry Prize.


What else?

This year, I was also asked to be part of the BBC’s Contains Strong Language Poetry Festival, which was broadcast from Cumbria, amid a whole host of ever-changing lockdown restrictions. For the festival, I wrote a commissioned poem inspired by Ruskin’s View in Kirkby Lonsdale. This poem was then used by Queen Elizabeth School (also in Kirkby Lonsdale) on National Poetry Day, as inspiration for students to write their own poems about lockdown – an exercise which turned into a school-wide poetry competition, which I ended up judging. Such a lovely experience to see a poem go on and have a life and a continuation after the writing of it, and to see the wonderful and heart-felt poems that the students went on to produce.

Despite the impossibility of delivering in-person school workshops this year, I have still worked on a couple of schools-based projects. The first is Fellfoot Fables – a Heritage Lottery Funded project, run by the North Pennines AONB Partnership as part of their Fellfoot Forward Scheme – which we ran right back in the first lockdown. The project encouraged children in the Fellfoot area to write about where they lived, and about their experiences of being at home during lockdown – and allowed many of the children to work towards Arts Award Discover as well.

More recently, I’ve been working on a postponed project with Prism Arts, exploring the life and work of Kurt Schwitters. Through a combination of pre-recorded videos, worksheets and video calls, I’ve worked with Yr5 pupils at Distington School, as well as participants from Prism Arts’ Studio Theatre West, towards writing poems about place and belonging, in response to Kurt Schwitters’ own poetic style.

This is also the project that occasioned what I think may have been my peak 2020 moment: filming for a virtual school workshop, and debating whether we needed to social distance from a puppet. Obviously puppets can’t catch Covid, but the puppet was playing a human, and we had to set a good example for the children…

This year I’ve also expanded on my mentoring, and in June, following the heightened conversations around how the publishing industry represents writers of colour (and particularly black writers), and in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, I offered mentoring to two emerging black writers: one poet, and one novelist. These sessions are still ongoing, and it’s been an absolute privilege to read and discuss the work.

And speaking of reading: during a large portion of this year, I’ve found reading much harder than usual, with concentration levels very low, and the urge to pick up my phone and doom-scroll unhealthy and overwhelming. So, when I finally felt like I’d regained my reading mojo, I set myself the challenge of reading 31 novellas during October. I actually finished book number 31 on 1st November, but I’m still counting it. And it was such a great list of books! (NB: affiliate link) I’m planning to write a full blog post about this at some point, about what the experience taught me, so watch this space in the new year.

I also, eventually, managed to write quite a bit, too. In place of my residency at Heinrich Boll Cottage in Ireland, I set myself the challenge of a 14-day virtual residency. And since then, I’ve joined Northern Writers’ Studio’s excellent Friday morning write-in sessions, which force me to spend an hour every Friday morning, doing nothing but focusing on writing, and are such a joyous way to round off the week.

Bookshelf filled with books

A couple of personal things:

Despite the year it’s been, I’ve also had some wonderful personal momens in 2020 – the biggest one being that my Grandma turned 100! Obviously, we weren’t able to have a full-on party for her, but I was delighted that I got to see her on her birthday, before the lockdown restrictions kicked in again. Thinking about the changes that have occurred during the century that she’s been alive still always knocks me back a moment.

I also went to Venice earlier this year, again in the pre-lockdown window back in February, where my oldest friend and I celebrated our 30th birthdays together, with a gondola ride, wandering the beautiful old back streets, and eating an awful lot of food. And, speaking of turning 30, I (almost) completed my 32 before 30 list, as well. I haven’t made another one yet for 40 – but maybe something to think about post-pandemic?


So what next?

Honestly, at this stage, 2021 feels like anything could happen. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have plans. For starters, My Name is Monster is coming out in paperback in January, so I’m planning an online book launch and quiz for that (come along for free, for the chance to win books)!

I’m also launching a programme of online workshops, as well as The Write Chat: an online event series, where I’ll be talking to a writer or writers each month, exploring an aspect of the craft of writing – everything from character to setting to building tension, to a general discussion of what it takes to write a book. Guests already confirmed for these sessions include Rashmi Sirdeshpande, Helen Mort, M W Craven, Yvonne Battle-Felton and Molly Aitken.

There are a couple of other things in the pipeline, too, including a guerrilla poetry project with Kendal Poetry Festival, and a couple of events with other online festivals. I’m also supposed to be attending a residency at Gladstone’s Library in the spring, after it was postponed from 2020, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how the pandemic situation develops.

And beyond that? Well, I have plans for writing, of course. In fact, while 2020 has been lower than anticipated on the level of word count, it’s been huge in terms of ideas.


2020: the year in pictures


Happy New Year – and all the best for you and your writing in 2021!

The beautifully vibrant paperback of My Name is Monster is nearly here!

On Thursday 7th January, come along for an online evening of books & quizzing, celebrating the paperback of My Name is Monster – hosted by Sam Read Bookseller, Grasmere. Drive away the post-Christmas January blues, by helping to launch the paperback out into the world.

A Monster Launch & Quiz!
Thursday 7th January 2021
7pm
FREE!
Book here.


Inspired by Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein, and shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award, My Name is Monster is Katie Hale’s debut novel – about power, and about the strength and the danger in a mother’s love. The novel centres on a young woman called Monster who believes she is alone in an empty, post-apocalyptic version of Britain. Slowly, piece by piece, she begins to rebuild a life. Until, one day, she finds a girl: another survivor, feral, and ready to be taught all that Monster knows.

Cover of My Name is Monster by Katie Hale

This celebration evening will be hosted by Will Smith, bookseller at Sam Read, Grasmere, and feature a reading from the book – after which I will swap my author hat for my quizmaster’s cap!

There’ll be a definite literary slant to the quiz, which will all be (very loosely) based around My Name is Monster. Don’t worry though – you don’t have to have read the book to answer the quiz questions. (Though if you want to, you can pre-order a signed paperback of My Name is Monster from Sam Read here.)

You can play along in your bubble at home, or if you want to join forces with friends in different households, you can communicate with each other through private chat to form a team.

Prizes include signed copies of the newly released paperback of My Name is Monster, along with other mystery goodies!


Katie Hale is a poet & novelist, based in Cumbria. Her debut novel, My Name is Monster, has been translated into multiple languages, and she is the author of two poetry pamphlets: Breaking the Surface and Assembly Instructions, which won the Munster Chapbook Prize. She is a former MacDowell Fellow and has completed a number of international residencies. She has also featured on national television and radio, including programmes such as Radio 4’s Open Book and Front Row, and has created commissioned work for the National Trust, the Barbican Centre, and the BBC Contains Strong Language poetry festival.

Will Smith is a bookseller at Grasmere’s Sam Read’s: a small independent bookshop founded in 1887. He is also an academic whose book reviews feature monthly in Cumbria Life and on BBC Radio Cumbria, a lecturer in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling, and a Canadian literature expert. In 2019 he co-edited a poetry anthology, Companions of Nature, and Lakeland Book Award-winning Grasmere: A History in 55½ Buildings. He was a judge of the 2019 Costa Book Awards.

Pre-order your signed copy of My Name is Monster here.

Here we are again. Back in lockdown. Back to negotiating how to translate various aspects of our lives to a digital platform. Back to thinking about how writing works in isolation.

For some of us, of course, we never really stopped the first time around – those who were actively shielding, but also those who just didn’t go anywhere unless it was completely necessary.

But for some, the past few months have been slightly different, with a few more freedoms, and hopefully some opportunity to fill up that well of inspiration a little bit, ahead of Lockdown: The Sequel – which, personally, I’m planning to spend in front of the fire with a hot chocolate & a big stack of books.

But, alongside the uncertainty of lockdown, October was also a month of celebration on a personal level for me. No, I’m not just talking about Halloween (though of course, that’s always a highlight). I’m talking about the fact that my Grandma turned 100!

It’s not every day that you get to celebrate someone you know living for a full century, so forgive me while I take a moment to share this with you. My Grandma has been my inspiration ever since I was a child, and I’ve loved getting to share the past 30 of her 100 years with her. Obviously things were a little different to how we’d have liked, because of Covid restrictions, but we still managed a wonderful day, and she still received her card from the queen!

woman blowing out candles in the shape of '100' on a birthday cake

And what about in my writing life? What’s been happening in the month pre-lockdown?


A Few Good Things:

Launch: Online Writing Workshops

Let’s be honest: the world isn’t getting back to normal any time soon. So, with that in mind, I’m planning ahead, and thinking about ways to encourage creativity into 2021.

So, throughout 2021, I’m running a series of online creative writing workshops, each focusing on a different asect of the craft of writing:

In each workshop, we will look at some examples of wonderful writing from existing works of fiction, and follow them up by doing some writing of our own. I’ll also leave you with a take-home writing prompt, so you can keep on being inspired in your own time.

Workshop cost: £20 (For each workshop, there are 2 free places available for those who would otherwise be unable to attend. Drop me a message if you would like one of these places.) Workshops run using Zoom & capped at 14 attendees, so it won’t feel too crowded.

I’m really excited to get underway with these workshops. I’ve had a few workshops from 2020 cancelled (or ‘postponed indefinitely’), so it’ll be amazing to return to running workshops more regularly.

Image of a bright pink street sign with the words 'The Droving Trail' at the top, and underneath it a QR code with the letter B inside, and a silhouette of a sheep beside it. In the bottom corner of the sign, the number 1.

Bella

You know those projects that come along that you just can’t say no to? That remind you of the fun and experimentation of the job of writing? Bella is absolutely one of those projects.

Bella is an interactive digital trail in response to Penrith Winter Droving (a rural festival of masks & fire & lanterns, run annually by Eden Arts). Obviously, the Winter Droving couldn’t happen this year because of Covid-19, so Eden Arts came up with a number of alternative projects to keep the Winter Droving spirit alive. One of these projects was Bella.

I had a phone call about the project back at the start of September, and since then it’s all been a bit of a whirlwind getting it up and ready. There are 10 episodes, written by yours truly, each in the form of a short video by ‘Bella’ (played by Natalie Bowers), a vlogger following the Winter Droving Trail. If you follow the trail along with her, it takes you on a journey around Penrith, to see if you can solve the mystery along the way. There are 10 clues to find…

Fellfoot Fables: Dark Skies Project

During Lockdown Number 1, I worked with North Pennines AONB Partnership on their Fellfoot Forward Project, encouraging children & adults to get out into the landscape as much as was safe and possible, and to write about their relationship with where they live – particularly in relation to lockdown, and their experience of place during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, in celebration of the North Pennines Stargazing Week 2020, we’ve produced this short film to help you use the North Pennines dark skies as inspiration for your writing and poetry. (NB: you don’t have to be in the Pennines to do this – you can look up at the sky from wherever you are and write a poem about it!)


The Month in Books:

October was a big month for reading, as I set myself the challenge of reading a novella or short novel a day for the entire month. That’s 31 books in 31 days. Which is a lot of reading.

I’m planning to write a whole separate blog post about this, so I won’t go into too much detail here. But if you want to check out what I read, you can see the list in this twitter thread:


The Month in Pictures:

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 down 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.)