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

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IMG_4519Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle, Katie Hale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle

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

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

Poetry:

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

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

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

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

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

Fingers crossed the lucky streak keeps going!

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

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

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

 

Fiction:

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

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

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

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on…

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

Theatre:

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

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

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

Hence rewrites and revisions.

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

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

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

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

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

Iceland

The months in books:

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

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

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

The months in pictures:

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