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

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

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

What actually happens when you launch a book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how do you organise a book tour?

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

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

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

How’s it all going so far?

Busy.

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

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

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

10 pieces of advice for launching a book:

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

A Book Launch Week in Pictures:

 

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

It’s here! Two and a half years after I sat down by the fire and wrote that opening sentence, not really sure whether it would ever amount to anything other than ‘that night I decided not to watch Netflix’, My Name is Monster is a real live book, for sale in regular (and irregular) bookshops.

It’s a slightly odd feeling, knowing that the book is out there in the public. It feels a little bit like going to the supermarket in your underwear – not that I’ve ever done that. It’s the knowledge that people will be reading it (hopefully) and judging it (hopefully not too harshly) and that it’s now completely beyond my control.

In a way, of course, it’s also very liberating – just as I assume it must be walking through the fruit & veg aisle in your knickers.

BUY MY NAME IS MONSTER ONLINE

What other people have said about the book:

*

‘A terrific piece of writing; tough and tender and insightful. I loved it.’
– Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat

*

‘A complex, accomplished debut. The prose dazzles while the themes of feminism, power and fertility sneak in for a gut-punch. It kept me gripped from the first page, and the characters continue to live and breathe in my imagination.’
– Kirsty Logan, author of The Gracekeepers

*

‘Katie Hale has written two fascinating, flawed and compelling characters and, with only two people and an empty world, has created a novel that is gripping, insightful and unique.’
– Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days

*

‘A riveting and disturbing novel, part twisted fairy tale and part dystopian nightmare, in which the primal human need to find meaning and love shines through the darkness of a ruined world.’
– Mick Kitson, author of Sal

Events:

Over the coming weeks, I’ve got a number of events lined up to help promote the book, both close to home around Cumbria, and further afield – specifically London and Cornwall. If you’re near any of these, it would be lovely to see you there:

  • 6 June: My Name is Monster book launch // Cakes & Ale Cafe, Carlisle, 7.30pm
  • 10 June: My Name is Monster talk & book signing // Waterstones, King Street, Lancaster, 6.30pm
  • 11 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Ambleside Library, Cumbria, 3pm
  • 13 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Roose Library, Cumbria, 2.30pm
  • 13 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Ulverston Library, Cumbria, 7pm
  • 18 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Sam Read Books // Emma’s Dell, Grasmere, Cumbria, 7.30pm
  • 19 June: The Feminist Book Society presents: Motherhood – the last feminist taboo // Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road, London, 6.30pm
  • 20 June: Writers’ Night: Katie Hale & Hanna Jameson // Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London, 7pm
  • 25 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Penrith Library, Cumbria, 2pm
  • 25 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // The Old Courthouse, Shap, Cumbria, 7.30pm
  • 27 June: My Name is Monster talk & book signing // Waterstones, Kendal, Cumbria, 6.30pm
  • 28 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Dalton in Furness Library, Cumbria, 10.30am
  • 28 June: My Name is Monster book talk // Cumbria Library Services // Grange over Sands Library, Cumbria, 2.30pm
  • 27 July: My Name is Monster book event // Port Eliot Festival // Walled Garden, 11am

Or, in case you prefer things in a visual format, here’s a handy infographic of my Cumbria events (plus one in Lancaster), created by the lovely Sam Read bookshop:

Related posts:

My Name is Monster: the books that opened the door

From Idea to Book: My Journey to Publication

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Name is Monster - editing, by Katie Hale

Let’s start at the very beginning…

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

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

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

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

WriteNow:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

writing life

Getting an Agent:

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

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

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

Proof pages of My Name is Monster, by Katie Hale

Acquisitions:

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

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

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

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

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

Working with the publisher:

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

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

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

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

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

Publication day

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

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

My Name is Monster: Book Launch

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

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

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

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

AVAILABLE TO BUY HERE

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

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

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

*

I was born in the morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

as we head for the unchartered deep.

*

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

image

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

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

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

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

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

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

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

MY TOP 5 CUMBRIAN CAFES FOR WRITING IN

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

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

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

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

Finding a place you trust is rule number one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few good things:

Frankenstein:

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

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

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

Manchester Poetry Prize shortlisting:

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

Plough Short Poem Prize:

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

The residency month in books:

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

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

The residency month in pictures: